Skeptical of sustainability
Anything that takes so much electricity can represent “an opportunity that is lost,” said Glenn Blackmon, senior energy policy adviser with the state.
That power could be used to help build out electric vehicle-charging infrastructure or to convert buildings from natural gas to high-efficiency electricity, he said.
“We need a lot of clean electricity … to do the energy transformation of our economy, that is necessary for us to meet our climate goals,” Blackmon said. “And adding a novel load like blockchain processing, at best, is an additional requirement for clean electricity.”
There is also a scenario, Blackmon said, where Merkle Standard could wind up in a situation where it negotiates to get power from somewhere else, possibly introducing fossil fuels to the mix, he said. He said the state’s Energy Office will be pitching the Legislature to close a loophole in the Clean Energy Transformation Act and prevent that from happening.
Otherwise, the state isn’t getting in the way of the project. Just keeping an eye on it. It isn’t really in the state’s purview to decide what is or isn’t a good use of electricity, Blackmon said.
“There’s lots of different things people might do with electricity that they haven’t done historically,” he said.
The potential environmental threat of cryptocurrency has garnered a few local opponents in Pend Oreille County, who have caused a couple of hiccups.
Richards, the Army veteran who runs a website called Protect Pend Oreille, and retired biologist Ed Styskel protested the county’s determination of non-significance for the project. Both argued that Merkle Standard was not forthright in how loud the full operation could be and how that noise might affect local wildlife, like the American white pelican that hangs out in the area part of the year.
In May, the county hearing examiner shot down the appeal and approved the conditional-use permit, with the requirement that the crypto operation follows state noise rules.
Stahl calls Richards a “fiction fantasy writer.” Stahl contends the old wood-chip processor was louder than the crypto equipment. But, Richards notes, the newsprint mill didn’t run 24/7.
The crypto operation has also come under fire from Responsible Growth NE Washington, a local environmental group that got its start five years ago protesting — and effectively chasing away — a proposed smelter in nearby Newport.
“When you want that much power, somewhere along that line … you’re going to find coal,” said Phyllis Kardos, a retired teacher and a leader of Responsible Growth.
Kardos says she isn’t opposed to reviving the mill and bringing back those jobs. But she worries about the impact of an industry that takes up so much electricity and, in her view, gives so little back.
“Someone has to speak for the environment,” she said. “People want to come here, not because of a smelter, or not because of a cryptocurrency. They want to come here because of the rural lifestyle, the environment that we have now.”
One question that remains is how long Merkle Standard will last in the current market conditions.
Maybe the market will swing up again, as it has done before, and Merkle will reap the profits.
Or perhaps the company will do as others have and take its miners to cheaper pastures. Merkle already shipped some computers to a server farm in South Carolina, where Stahl said the process was much smoother.
For now, Stahl says they have no plans of leaving Usk as long as it makes business sense to stay.
“Maybe I’m just a sucker for northeast [Washington] because I grew up in Colville,” he said. “But whenever I can, I’m gonna try to build it here. If it becomes economically unfeasible, we’ll go somewhere else.”