Klickitat PUD in South Central Washington is a small utility, serving roughly 14,000 meters at local households and businesses. A few years ago, a new mine opened along the PUD’s lines. That factory didn’t find gold, silver or lithium—it mined bitcoin, a cryptocurrency. Due to the crypto mine, KPUD’s total power use increased by nearly 20% overnight.
Large computing setups—such as cryptocurrency mining and data centers—consume large amounts of electricity. As the internet continues to connect the world, utilities across the country need to shoulder the load.
“When these users come in, they’re a substantial percentage of a small utility’s load, and it happens all in one shot,” says Mike DeMott, Klickitat PUD director of finance and power management. “They come in and—kaboom—there they are.”
The Columbia River Gorge—the corridor that runs along the border between Oregon and Washington—is home to many crypto and data facilities. This is partly due to the presence of clean, affordable hydropower from the Federal Columbia River Power System, but also due to the availability of industrial land in a moderate, low-humidity climate.
“We all have our stuff in the cloud and everything online,” Mike says. “The large data centers are going to be a big part of society and power supply needs going forward.”
Northern Wasco County PUD operates in The Dalles, Oregon, just across the Columbia River from Klickitat PUD. The two utilities co-own a hydropower facility. NWCPUD’s first high-density electricity user came to its lines when Google opened a data center in 2004. These data centers are rife with computer servers that run together to process, distribute or store data.
Back in the early 2000s, NWCPUD’s total energy use at any point peaked between 30 and 40 megawatts. As data centers, crypto services and more have moved to The Dalles, the load is now more than 180 MW. NWCPUD General Manager Roger Kline says the goal is to reach 400 MW within five years.
“These are opportunities for the organization,” Roger says. “If you’re just very clear with what your goals are and the expectations for the customer, it’s a rising tides that lifts all boats.”
Increased power sales can benefit local communities. NWPUD has a franchise agreement to pay a percentage of its revenues to the city in return for being able to operate.
“As the district has grown, what used to be $200,000 a year transferred to the city now is just over $2 million, and will continue to grow,” Roger says.
To make this growth possible, the utility has built out its customer service team and works to be transparent and proactive with potential newcomers. A key NWCPUD program is the Facility Site Evaluation Request. Potential high-load users contact the PUD and pay an upfront fee based on the site’s size and location. The utility’s analysis determines what engineering would be required, the amount of infrastructure that could be built and the amount of power it would supply.
“We want to meet them where they are,” Roger says. “We just try to make our process as clear and as transparent as possible.”
Once infrastructure is set up, utilities still must buy that power. Crypto and data centers draw power 24/7. While utilities can have long-term contracts to generate this power, increased energy consumption still forces utilities like KPUD to buy larger volumes on the open energy market. But buying larger volumes can be challenging. Electricity-generating facilities are being retired across the Northwest at the same time the focus turns to beneficial electrification—transitioning to electricity for things otherwise powered by fossil fuels. Consequently, there is less supply and more demand for power on the market.
“It increases your exposure to higher-priced power, potentially,” Mike says. “It’s getting to the point where these larger users of power are probably going to be driving the need for resources to be built to serve them.”
Both KPUD and NWCPUD have different rate classes for different types of customers. Each is designed so no customer segment subsidizes another. Typically, this means higher energy prices for larger consumers, as well as the user shouldering more of the cost of building the additional transmission capacity they require.
“We had to get real creative on customer service and rate structures,” Roger says.
As more of our world relies on electricity, utilities will have to work harder to provide it. But publicly owned utilities are here to serve their communities and are ready to do the work.
“Once they’re connected to our system, they’re our customer too, and we care about them,” Roger says. “These are all opportunities if the organizational leadership has that mindset. This is just something else that we get to figure out.”
What is Crypto?
The various cryptocurrencies—bitcoin is the most well-known—are forms of digital money. They are decentralized, facilitated online rather than through a country’s central bank. Cryptocurrencies are not backed by gold or silver, or by trust in a government’s solvency as dollars, pounds or euros are. Instead, they are based on trust in computing.
Many people speculate on cryptocurrencies, with advocates suggesting the value will continue to rise. Estimates suggest there are between $200 billion and $3 trillion in cryptocurrency tokens worldwide, although bitcoin held more than 50% in value between November 2022 and June 2023.
Cryptocurrency already uses about as much electricity as all of Finland. This energy use is required to maintain the huge amounts of computing power that track cryptocurrency transactions. Many cryptocurrencies ensure the legitimacy of their money through proof-of-work. Effectively, every computer in the network competes to solve a mathematical puzzle, the answer to which proves the transaction is legitimate. The idea behind proof-of-work is that with so much computing power competing to be the first to solve these puzzles, there’s no room for fraud or security breaches.
Using computers to solve these math puzzles is called crypto mining. Mining is energy intensive and requires significantly more electricity than checking email, streaming videos or manipulating a large Excel file.
Crypto miners are typically smaller and less permanent operations than data centers, but they still can create large load growth for utilities.