Missoula County is seeking public input on a plan to require cryptocurrency miners here to forgo fossil-fuel energy and comply with noise and zoning regulations.

The cryptocurrency mining operation in Bonner is estimated to consume the same amount of electricity as one-third of all households in Missoula County, according to county officials. And although that power comes from a renewable source, a hydroelectricity-producing dam, county energy conservation and sustainability coordinator Diana Maneta says it indirectly causes greenhouse-gas emissions.

“When you buy existing renewable energy, essentially you are displacing previous customers, which are then using other sources,” she said. “You are then having an impact on climate change.

"Energy that’s generated from a source like a dam like that is sold, whether it’s long-term contracts or (short-term sales), it’s safe to assume that energy (from the dam) was previously being used.”

At 2 p.m. Thursday, April 4, in Room 151 of the County Courthouse Annex, the Board of County Commissioners will consider county-wide interim zoning regulations that would establish criteria that cryptocurrency mining operations must meet.

One of those requires cryptocurrency operations to purchase new renewable energy to offset 100 percent of their meter consumption. They could either develop the new power source themselves, such as building solar panels or geothermal infrastructure or wind turbines, or buy into a new renewable energy development.

Other criteria include recycling electronic waste and complying with noise level regulations. The facility in Bonner generated significant controversy when neighbors complained that cooling fans created an incessant, loud humming noise. The facility has since spent money on quieter fans, but the county doesn’t want a repeat of that situation.

“The high energy consumption of cryptocurrency mining operations runs counter to Missoula County’s objective to reduce its contribution to climate change,” the county’s draft of the proposed regulations reads. “Equipment at cryptocurrency mining facilities has the potential to create noise pollution that negatively impacts nearby residents, businesses, and wildlife.

"In addition, electronic waste from cryptocurrency mining operations contains heavy metals and carcinogens that have the potential to damage human health, water quality, and air quality if not handled correctly,” the draft says.

Maneta said cryptocurrency mining, like the type that creates bitcoins, is a continuous process where computers work to solve algorithms to maintain and build an algorithmic chain, or blockchain, and in exchange are granted cryptocurrency. The process requires specialized computer hardware and high electricity use.

Montana’s relatively cheap electric rates and cool climate have made Missoula County attractive for locating cryptocurrency mining operations. However, some of the goals of the 2016 Missoula County Growth Policy is to “reduce the county’s contribution to climate change” and “strive to protect public health, safety and welfare in a fiscally responsible manner.” The policy also states that “economic measures should focus on long term economic development that is fiscally responsible and does not unduly compromise quality of life or the natural environment.”

The Bonner facility currently uses 20 megawatts of power, but a video it posted says it could expand to 60 megawatts, which would be equal to all combined households in Missoula County. The Bonner facility would be exempt from the new regulations unless it expands.

Missoula County is considering committing to a goal of carbon neutrality in county government operations by 2035, and to a goal of 100 percent clean electricity for the Missoula urban area by 2030. They county and the city's Committee of the Whole will hold a public meeting on whether to adopt that commitment at an April 3 meeting.

The 2018 Special Report on Global Warming of 1.5 degrees Celsius from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, which was written by 91 scientists from 40 countries, was based on more than 6,000 scientific studies. It found that human activities have already caused the Earth to warm by 1 degree Celsius, and that allowing warming to exceed 1.5 degrees will result in massive impacts on ecosystems, human health, and economic and social well-being.

The draft of the new county regulations states that “the Montana Climate Assessment determined that impacts of climate change in northwest Montana, including in Missoula County, will include reduced low-elevation snowpack, earlier spring snowmelt, hotter summers, and more frequent and intense wildfires and floods, and that these impacts will be more severe if global greenhouse gas emissions are not reduced sharply in the near future."

Maneta noted that Missoula County is already suffering the impacts of climate change, especially in the form of more frequent and intense wildfires and wildfire smoke.

“The large and increasing energy consumption of cryptocurrency mining operations results in increased greenhouse gas emissions that cause climate change,” the draft reads.

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