By Mike Irwin / The Wenatchee World
WENATCHEE — Seems like everybody wants a piece of the bitcoin action now that the crypto-currency’s value hovers at around $20,000.
And the Chelan County PUD is feeling the pinch.
District managers said Monday that a surge in inquiries for low-cost power from bitcoin operators is stressing staff resources and striking at the heart of the PUD principle to provide long-term quality service to its customer-owners.
The unprecedented increase in high density load (HDL) inquiries is putting a strain on the district’s ability to provide “the best for the most for the longest,” John Stoll, the district’s customer utilities managing director, told PUD commissioners.
Stoll explained that during the past two years the market value for bitcoin — a digital currency — has skyrocketed from $300 to just under $20,000. Bitcoin miners, creators of the currency, require large amounts of power to maintain arrays of computers for their bitcoin operations.
The Chelan PUD, a supplier of some of the lowest-cost power in the nation, is an attractive location for bitcoin operations — so much so that in 2015 the PUD developed policies, fees and rates to keep a handle on bitcoin operations of up to 5 megawatts. Anything larger would require a formal power contract that could require buying power for the customer on the open market.
“Now that the cryto-currency market is so attractive, the Chelan PUD is seeing dramatically increasing interest by bitcoin miners for much larger loads,” said Stoll. “The power needs are significant.”
Chelan County’s average retail power load is around 200 megawatts. A winter peak of 491 megawatts set in January 2017 was primarily due to cold weather power use, not bitcoin operations, said a PUD press release.
But in recent months, the PUD has received four inquires for 100 megawatts or more, each of which will require detailed study if a formal application is submitted, said Stoll. Additionally, multiple inquiries in the 10 to 50 megawatt range have been received, along with ongoing interest in small “hobby” connections.
In comparison, a recent expansion of Oath’s (Yahoo) server farm in Quincy will require 25 megawatts with a possibility of peaking in the future at 40 megawatts, according to online industry trade journal Data Center Knowledge.
At the same time, PUD staff are seeing unpermitted HDLs — labeled “rogue operators” by the PUD — in residential neighborhoods that require immediate attention to identify, evaluate and install proper services for safety and reliability.
Stoll said those rogue operations are usually discovered when household electric meters show a spike in power usage. The PUD is finding about two of these operations a week, said Stoll.
Stoll said the increase in HDL inquiries and the staff time needed to address them could affect “PUD values of operational excellence, trustworthiness, safety and stewardship.”
Initial assessment of large HDL inquiries may require just a team of three or four personnel, he said. But further assessment would require a larger team of engineers and managers to assess or design transmission lines, substations and other infrastructure.
For now, he said, the PUD staff plans to:
• Continue to process existing service applications for which forms have been completed and engineering fees paid.
• Answer inquiries on HDL service or large-load opportunities after a “power inquire form” has been completed.
• Respond to those wishing to know about power availability at their location after a service application is completed.
• Reserve pre-application meetings for those who have completed all application materials but have technical questions before associated fees are assessed.
In other business Monday, commissioners:
• Elected Commissioner Dennis Bolz to serve as board president for 2018. Commissioner Gary Arsenault will continue as vice-president, and Commissioner Steve McKenna will serve as secretary.
• Instructed PUD parks staff to work with the Lake Chelan Rotary to resolve safety and maintenance concerns over interpretive signs in the Rotary club’s proposal to install a to-scale “Planet Walk” in Chelan’s Riverwalk Park. The installation would show the earth’s relationship to other planets in the solar system.