Sustainability in our backyard: UM struggles to make change

We spend most of our time as graduate students working and learning in the 60-plus buildings that comprise the University of Montana campus, seldom thinking about all the energy required to keep these spaces functioning and habitable.

Concerns about the escalation of Climate Change and the general degradation of our natural resources has many communities around the US reconsidering their relationships to food, water, and energy. Here at the University of Montana, there have been substantial efforts to propel us towards a more sustainable way of operating. Back in 2003, we began a Farm to College program with the intent of connecting the university and its students to their food and prioritizing relationships with sustainable Montana agricultural producers. We also joined several other ambitious universities in commiting to a Climate Action Plan, approved in 2010, to address both our consumption of energy and the ways in which our energy is produced. Our goals have been some of the most aggressive, with the aim of being a carbon neutral campus by 2020. With this date right around the corner, our BRIDGES group had the opportunity to tour campus with UM Dining Sustainability Director, Trevor Lowell, and UM Sustainability Coordinator, Eva Rocke, to discuss the successes and challenges they’ve navigated on their journey to developing and supporting a more sustainable campus.

Farm to College

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These dapper ducks play their part in maintaining the Lommasson garden on campus

UM dining has a leg up when it comes to taking on sustainability initiatives: unlike most universities across the country, it is a self-run service rather than corporately owned. This gives UM dining the leverage to try new things and flex some sustainability muscle. With two small student-operated campus farms and a commitment to purchasing local and sustainable food, the Farm to College program serves as an educational backdrop for exploring our relationships to food and the role that food and agriculture play in the university’s carbon footprint. Today these efforts contribute to only a quarter of UM dining’s $3.5 million in food purchases, but the Farm to College program has become the face of food at UM.

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The Lommasson garden still bears some green as winter approaches

In our meeting with Trevor Lowell, he explained that the majority of his work revolves around marketing and gaining additional support for often pricier but more sustainable food choices. He spoke about the push and pull of competing interests and the constant balancing act that he plays in his work. Attempting to balance between sustainability goals, costs, student requests and tastes, relationships with farmers, convenience, supply, and even politics appears to be somewhat like solving a Rubik’s Cube. The number one priority of UM dining is, of course, serving students, and although there is what Trevor called a “vocal minority” of students requesting more organic and vegan food options, chicken strip night at the Food Zoo still remains by and large the most popular. Trevor explains that, in the minds of most students all the way up to the university’s Board of Regents, the sustainability of UM’s dining services aren’t always a priority. Trevor emphasized that some changes towards sustainable practices, such as quantifying food waste in the kitchen or bringing food production onto campus gardens, are profound for their educational impacts. At UM, these practices not only help us learn how to cultivate and use food more efficiently, but also encourages our educational community to lead the way in considering our role in food systems.

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Filing into the Central Heating Plant to get a closer look at UM’s energy

Energy at UM

After learning about how UM sources and uses food, we headed across campus for a glimpse at how the university is heated and powered. The heat and energy required to run campus is managed in the steam plant, a large brick building located south of Grizzly Stadium. We spend most of our time as graduate students working and learning in the 60-plus buildings that comprise the University of Montana campus, seldom thinking about all the energy required to keep these spaces functioning and habitable. Buildings, it turns out, are enormous energy hogs, guzzling away more than 30% of America’s total energy use and greenhouse gas emissions.

UM’s buildings are no exception – the vast majority of energy consumed on campus goes into heating and electrifying them. Overall, UM uses as much natural gas as 4,000 average households (250,000 MMBtu); consumes electricity at a rate similar to 3,000 average US homes (34,500 MWh), and uses approximately 180,000,000 gallons of water annually (5,000 US homes). Moreover, the 220 acres UM sits upon are whirling with construction activity, including the recent addition of the Harold and Priscilla Gilkey Building in 2016 and current work on a 35,000-foot expansion of the Phyllis J. Washington Education Center. These large construction endeavors have made progress toward UM’s carbon neutrality goal increasingly difficult.

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Stop by the Central Heating Plant to talk to Jim, Gary, Neil, or Donny about UM energy production

The ongoing challenge of meeting the needs of a changing student body while simultaneously pursuing more sustainable energy practices is one that UM is attempting to address with a number of different strategies, including new technologies, alternative energy, and increased efficiency. In accordance with the Montana University System, all new buildings over $3 million USD must be Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED)-certified to move campuses in a more energy-saving and sustainable direction. However, like many college campuses, most buildings at UM were built prior to 2000, before LEED standards were developed by the United States Green Building Council. Brian Kerns, an engineer at UM, walked us through the methods campus uses to heat and power its buildings, be they LEED certified or not.

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A network of tunnels takes steam and electricity to campus buildings

All of the steam required to heat campus structures is produced in the steam plant. The plant houses three 1960’s-era boilers, which pass steam to all buildings on campus through three miles of underground tunnels. Today, UM’s boilers are powered by natural gas, and in a process known as co-generation, the heating plant uses a steam turbine generator to produce 500 KWh of electricity when steam production exceeds 25,000 pounds hour-1. This equates to about 744 MWh, or 2% of the total energy UM consumes in one year. The rest of the electricity needed is purchased from NorthWestern energy, a publicly traded corporation headquartered in South Dakota. Though NorthWestern sources ~60% ( of its power from renewable resources (including hydropower), a large component of their generating capacity is still fossil-fueled. The University of Montana is unable to purchase electricity from other sources as required by a default customer contract between NorthWestern and UM.

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The steam plant boilers occupy an impressive amount of the building

Kerns described this contract and mentioned that other universities have reduced their carbon footprint by buying electricity from renewable sources, an option that is currently unavailable to UM. However, UM has considered additional strategies for moving closer to carbon neutrality, including developing their own wind and solar energy resources. While wind reliability in the vicinity of campus does not warrant investment, a couple of solar projects have been proposed. This includes a 2015 resolution passed by the Associated Students of the University of Montana to cover the campus parking garage with solar panels, a project that was estimated to cover approximately 10% of the University’s electricity needs for 40 years. A second project under discussion is the construction of a 3MWh/day solar farm near campus. However, because of UM’s default customer status with Northwestern Energy, power produced at the solar farm could not be returned to the grid through net metering. Instead, UM would have to use the energy through a process known as back metering, which requires additional infrastructure to physically connect the solar farm to UM’s power grid, inflating the final price tag. And, with a 28.5% decline in student enrollment over the last seven years creating severe budget shortfalls at UM, the focus has shifted away from projects that might have sounded feasible when the 2010 Climate Action Plan was being formulated. Now, seemingly more immediate concerns like job retention and UM’s solvency have been prioritized, and the more costly sustainability projects like solar investment have been tabled, at least in the short-term.

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A stroll by the south side of Lommasson will give you a peak at our campus duck community

Our Concluding Thoughts

What became clear for us throughout our tour is that the work to transition towards more sustainable practices is not only technically and financially complex, but it involves a negotiation of priorities and perspectives that reminds us there are many dimensions to our human systems. What’s encouraging is that we already have passionate people here in BRIDGES, across campus, and around the country who are intent on contributing their skills and energy towards these changes. As we continue towards our goals of a sustainable future here at UM, we remember that scaling our goals up to a sustainable country and world will take a team of us, and the diverse knowledge and abilities that we have to contribute, together.

Cryptocurrency: The Next Big Thing or a Waste of Energy?

After an entire day hearing from local experts and visiting the cryptocurrency mine in our very backyard, we were reminded that there are two sides to every (Bit)coin.

At first thought, cryptocurrency might seem like the only economically valuable resource that can be “mined” without any negative environmental impacts. After all, it’s not real mining — the kind that has left a legacy of heavy metal-contamination that Montanans know all too well. However, this new “digital gold rush” that has taken hold in our state has an energy footprint and other local impacts that continue to raise concern about whether or not it’s truly a clean operation.

First off, you may be asking; what on Earth is cryptocurrency? We know, it’s name is a puzzle in and of itself. Cryptocurrency is a decentralized, extremely secure form of digital currency that relies on a distributed, peer-to-peer ledger system called a blockchain. It turns out that validating this blockchain to ensure its security (called mining) requires a surprising amount of energy. In fact, Bitcoin mining accounts for about 1% of the world’s electricity consumption. Regardless of whether you think cryptocurrency is simply a fad that will come and go or believe it’s where the global financial system is headed in the long-run, this global industry is expanding fast and communities like Missoula, with mining operations in their backyard, are being pushed to take a stance and stay ahead of the curve. Our UM BRIDGES cohort spent a day learning about Project Spokane, Missoula County’s largest cryptocurrency mining facility, and the potential impacts it’s having on the local community.

Cryptocurrency in Missoula County

In 2010, the first real-world Bitcoin transaction occurred when two pizzas were purchased for 10,000 Bitcoins, worth $63 million as of today, November 2, 2018. Since then, approximately 1,000 other lesser-known cryptocurrencies have been developed. As Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have expanded, so have their energy footprints. Montana has become an especially attractive location for cryptocurrency mining facilities due to the cheap price of electricity and the cool climate, which assists in cooling the machines doing the mining. Diana Maneta and Jennie Dixson (Missoula County Energy, Conservation, and Sustainability Coordinator and Planner, respectively) took us through “Cryptocurrency 101” where we learned about the wide-ranging concerns county officials and residents have expressed about expansion of the industry in Missoula County, including increased electricity use, noise, electronic waste, fire, and impacts on utility users.

From the Missoula County Energy Commission office in downtown Missoula, we headed out to the warehouse of the former Bonner lumber mill where Project Spokane is run by the multinational cryptocurrency mining company HyperBlock. As we embarked on our tour, questions at the forefront of our minds were; How can a form of currency that most people don’t understand, much less use, require as much electricity as a medium-sized country? Are the benefits of cryptocurrency worth its enormous footprint? How will residents of Missoula County be impacted, both positively and negatively, by further cryptocurrency mining?

Before entering the facility, we spent a half hour huddled in the cold drizzle asking facility manager Jason Vaughan some of our most pressing questions as we were warned that it would be difficult to hear once we went into the facility. After our initial questions were answered, we followed Jason inside the warehouse to see the mining operation for ourselves.

2Looking up at the massive warehouse that hosts Project Spokane, Missoula County’s cryptocurrency mine


Project Spokane

Project Spokane’s Bonner facility is a bizarre mix of sci-fi esque machinery, computers eerily glowing green in row after row of stacked shelving, and rustic infrastructure — think wooden walls and the occasional pigeon roosting in the rafters above. The facility supplies jobs to an indeterminate number of employees; while we were there, a few workers buzzed around, examining the machines. While providing local jobs is often touted as a benefit of such a facility, the operation seemed manageable with just a few employees at any given time. The noise from the fans was louder than it had been from the outside, and our group wore earplugs to protect against the constant buzz. Jason generously allowed us time to wander and stare at the massive space. After 45 minutes of wandering around the facility, we reconvened at a slightly-less noisy end of the facility for a final Q & A with Jason before heading home. He, like many people, adamantly believes that blockchain technology and Bitcoin is the next big thing since the Internet and will ultimately revolutionize the way we exchange money. He may be right. Some advantages of Bitcoin include lower fraud risks for buyers, no risk of inflation, and peer-to-peer transaction. Still, there are some very real concerns associated with cryptocurrency mining, which warrant further discussion.

3Photo credit: Charlie Warzel / BuzzFeed News. Inside warehouse at Project Spokane.


Cryptocurrency, Energy, and Climate Change

Although cryptocurrency transactions may seem like something out of a futuristic, intangible world, the energy used to complete these transactions and generate some cryptocurrencies, like Bitcoin, is very real. Project Spokane is a 20-megawatt facility, which currently uses as much electricity as one-third of all houses in Missoula County. According to Maneta, if all proposed cryptocurrency mines in Montana were developed, the energy use capacity would exceed 1,000 megawatts. Northwest Energy, Montana’s largest energy provider, currently tops out at roughly 1,600 megawatts!

Why does mining cryptocurrency require so much energy? Bitcoin is mined by application-specific integrated circuit chips (ASICs), which use extremely fast computing power to find acceptable solutions to an algorithmic puzzle in order to verify the security of the blockchain. The faster the ASIC, the more electricity it uses. Although there is incentive to improve efficiency in order to maximize profit, it is likely that energy consumption by cryptocurrency mining will only increase as long as it is profitable. Although some facilities run off renewable energy, like Project Spokane, which contracts with the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam (formerly Kerr Dam) run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes, others buy energy from fossil fuel burning power plants to generate cryptocurrency.

Other mines have been proposed in Missoula County, and it remains to be seen how other residents would be affected if an increasing percentage of the county’s energy goes to cryptocurrency mining. Missoula County also has a mandate to consider mines’ contributions to global climate change. Some analyses claim that Bitcoin alone could be responsible for pushing the planet past 2 degrees of warming by 2034. For a technology that is used by few, cryptocurrency’s footprint is proportionally huge, and the relative benefits of the technology compared to its enormous environmental costs warrant consideration.


4Chart credit:


Cryptocurrency & Noise

Noise pollution that facilities create is another subject of controversy surrounding cryptocurrency mining. Despite the cool weather in Missoula County that make it an attractive place for cryptocurrency mining, a massive amount of cooling equipment is still needed in order to keep the ASICs from overheating. For Project Spokane, the resulting noise pollution led to numerous complaints from Bonner residents, which catalyzed a public hearing that took place last June (2018). During the hearing, many residents specifically expressed concern over the noise and how it affects sleeping, property values and the health of their children.

Although noise pollution hasn’t received as much public attention as other types of pollution, research has shown that persistent unwanted sound can result in significant health consequences. Under the US EPA’s Clean Air Act is Title IV dedicated specifically to addressing the negative impacts of noise pollution on public health and welfare. According to the EPA, research has shown that problems related to noise include stress related illnesses, high blood pressure, speech interference, hearing loss, sleep disruption, and lost productivity. Needless to say, residents of Bonner are justified in their complaints about the impact of noise pollution — an issue that may easily be overlooked by those not living near the facility.

Since the hearing, Project Spokane has switched out the blades on the nearly 400 fans in the warehouse in an effort to “be a good neighbor” and make them quieter. However, with expansion on the horizon for Project Spokane and global interest in the cryptocurrency industry on the rise, noise is another factor to consider when companies look to Missoula County as a viable place to operate.


5Outside of Project Spokane in Bonner.


Cryptocurrency & Electronic Waste

The rapid pace of cryptocurrency mining requires Project Spokane to regularly update their fleet of mining hardware. Most of the facilities hardware are ASICs, which are created solely to solve Bitcoin blocks. The latest and greatest is the AntMiner S9, but Jason Vaughan stated a new ASIC will be out later this year. Upgrading the 8,000 ASICs Project Spokane uses will increase profits and decrease energy use (AntMiner S9 has a power efficiency of 0.098 W/Gh vs the AntMiner S7 of 0.25 W/Gh), but the old hardware (known as electronic waste or e-waste) has to be sold or recycled. Jason said that when they’ve upgraded hardware in the past most of the old ASICs were sold in bulk to other cryptocurrency mining companies. The ones that were not sold were taken to Pacific Steel & Recycling, and that none were sent to the landfill!

E-waste is one of the most rapidly growing sources of waste worldwide. The term E-waste can be applied to many materials, including batteries, plastic casings, and cathode-ray tubes. Circuit boards, an important component of ASICs, contain very hazardous materials, such as lead, cadmium, and mercury. Thankfully Pacific Steel & Recycling accepts E-waste! They recover and reuse functional components, and most of the other materials that cannot be repaired or reused will be recycled. This saves energy, reduces pollution, reduces greenhouse gas emissions, and saves resources by extracting fewer raw materials.


6Photo credit: Charlie Warzel / BuzzFeed News. Rows of ASIC computers, used to mine Bitcoin.


Cryptocurrency & Utilities

As stated above, but warrants repeating, the Bonner facility consumes approximately 20 MW of power a year,  which is enough to provide electricity to approximately one third of the households in Missoula County! The electricity consumed by the 250,000 sq. ft facility is largely used to keep 8,000 ASIC miners busily solving complex algorithms 24 hours a day. Project Spokane has no plans of slowing down; indeed, expansion of their operation has been proposed to company investors. But how does this disproportionately high power use by cryptocurrency mining operations affect local communities’ utility rates?

When it comes to the Bonner facility, the answer to this question is, currently, it doesn’t. Power is one thing Montana has an ample supply of. Missoula County’s main electricity provider is Northwest Energy, which generate much of its energy from local hydropower operations. Project Spokane, on the other hand, contracts with the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam (formerly Kerr Dam) run by the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes. Therefore, a Project Spokane expansion will not affect Missoulian’s utility rates, but it could affect the rates of the other users who contract with the Seli’š Ksanka Qlispe’ Dam.

Electricity, like any other commodity, exists as a finite supply. Even seemingly infinite sources of power generation, such as solar or wind energy, rely on infrastructure that ultimately limits their maximum output. Although currently Montana’s power supply is plentiful, the concern is that enough added electricity consumption will lead to increased rates for all consumers. It’s a simple question of supply and demand.

Utility distribution is a concern that was recently addressed in areas of Washington, where Bitcoin mining operations are using so much energy, mining facilities now pay higher energy rates to prevent associated increases in public users’ utility rates. Although this is not yet a pressing concern in Missoula County, there is no end in sight for Bitcoin mining. Jason Vaughan said it himself: “We plan to be here awhile.” Concerns over utility distribution will need to be addressed with any new or expanding mining operation.

Cryptocurrency & Fires

ASICs are designed for one purpose, requiring high amounts of energy, and generate incredible amounts of heat. HyperBlock, like many of their competitors, operate out of an abandoned building (the old Bonner mill) outfitted with the infrastructure to support operational needs, electricity, internet access, and ventilation. Jason addressed this, stating the risk of an overheating ASIC catching fire is there, but the risk of a fire getting out of control is small because there’s little flammable material in the facility. As the above pictures show, the infrastructure is made of metals, plastics, and rubber, and the building is equipped with modern sprinkler system and fire extinguishers. With cryptocurrency expansion on the horizon though, a concern within the Missoula community is that not all buildings that might house these types operations are built to code and may pose a threat of fire, as has been the case in the state of Washington.


Two Sides to Every (Bit)coin

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies are becoming household words across the globe. Due to the digital nature of cryptocurrency – its defining feature – most people don’t think twice about the machines, facilities, and energy behind those transactions and where they take place. But here in Montana, we are increasingly housing those machines and becoming that place. For that reason, our UM BRIDGES cohort was eager to understand the local impacts of cryptocurrency industry expansion that has been dubbed Montana’s “digital gold rush.” After an entire day hearing from local experts and visiting the cryptocurrency mine in our very backyard, we were reminded that there are two sides to every (Bit)coin.