Malcolm Gustafson and his wife Paula take to their recliners in the mornings and gaze across the ranchland between their home and the Highland Mountains, often counting the antelope or elk in a herd. Twice they’ve even seen a wolverine.
“That’s why we’re here,” Gustafson said. “It’s the view.”
On June 17, Madison River Equity LLC will seek a special use permit from the Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board to install a 1,600-acre solar array, the Basin Creek Solar Project, on private ranchland in south Butte. The 12-foot-tall array would sit immediately south and west of Gustafson’s home and smack in the middle of the scenic view.
Though Gustafson, a retired Silver-Bow firefighter, is among those closest to the project, he isn’t up-in-arms. Nonetheless, he and other nearby landowners are naturally concerned, and closely assessing the project’s merits.
Green energy projects have to go somewhere, and with any development — green or not — a few stand to sacrifice more than the masses. Next month project proponents will have to convince the county’s Zoning Board the project belongs in Butte.
Project developers say the panels will produce nearly 300 megawatts annually — enough to meet the needs of 40,600 single family homes. For perspective, there are 14,605 homes in Butte-Silver Bow County, according to the U.S. Census.
John McDermott intends to lease developers land from the Gozden-McDermott ranch property, where a total of 700,000 solar panels would be placed on either side of the seasonal drainage, Little Basin Creek, with a 1,500-foot wide corridor for wildlife left in the middle.
Madison River Equity is a subsidiary of Rick Tabish’s FX solutions, which developed the Atlas Power data center just northeast of the proposed solar project in the industrial park south of Highlands College.
Atlas Power, run by Kevin Washington, mines cryptocurrency and is planning an expansion of its GPUs, or Graphics Processing Units, the high-performance computing capacity of which can also be used for artificial intelligence work and other applications.
Washington said he plans to add eight new buildings containing thousands of additional GPUs in the short-term, as well as a programming academy at the facility, diversifying beyond crypto to a broad scope of cutting edge tech work. He says the expansion will make Butte a world headquarters of high performance computing.
If all the necessary permits are acquired, Washington said he intends to buy the Basin Creek Solar Project, and power the data center and his expansion with its energy.
Crypto mining has a reputation as a dirty, energy-draining enterprise. The practice uses a lot of juice, most of which comes from fossil fuels and hydroelectric power.
The project would be one of the top 10 largest solar generation facilities in the country and generate almost half the power produced by non-hydro renewable sources in Montana in 2010, according to developers.
Though the buildings themselves won’t require a change in zoning, the solar project requires a special use permit because the land’s not zoned for industrial use.
Many nearby landowners are strong supporters of green energy in general, but still concerned about the project.
“It’s just absolutely massive,” said Bonnie Yeo, who owns a 540-acre ranch adjacent to the proposed array.
Project developers hired Matt Vincent, former chief executive of Butte-Silver Bow, as a consultant and spokesperson.
Vincent sent out 200 letters to area landowners inviting them to learn about the project at the Atlas data center. About 60 people turned out for the meetings on May 11 and May 18.
“I don't think there was anybody coming in jumping for joy wanting to see how they could get on board, but we certainly had a lot of people leave with that sort of sentiment,” Vincent said.
Others remained adamantly opposed — John and Sandi Roesti included. The couple lives to the immediate northwest of the giant swath proposed for solar.
“If that goes in we’re going to see a sea of black,” Sandi said. “As for solar panels, we have them on our motorhome. We're all for that, but not 1,600 beautiful acres.”
“The thing is, it’s not going to do Butte any good,” John added. “They're pushing that they'll bring all kinds of jobs in here, but it won't. Except in the very beginning when you put them all in. And then after that, there's nothing. The people's property values are going to go way down out here.”
Gustafson lives immediately northeast of the project, next to the data center and industrial park. He estimated he’s a few hundred yards from the start of the proposed array.
A housing development might be just as bad, Gustafson said, in terms of disturbance. Landscaped homes might be nicer to look at than solar panels, he said, but two-story homes would obscure the view of the prairie and foothills more than the panels.
“I have no problems with solar, green energy, or with anything that helps the environment, no problems whatsoever,” he said.
Gustafson has read crypto mining uses a lot of juice, but his main concern is the impending transformation of his view, and possible impacts to the environment.
Gustafson said the noise from the data center’s fans has also been an issue.
Bonnie Yeo’s ranch neighbors Gustafson and the McDermott property.
“I look right out my kitchen window and see it,” Yeo said.
But Yeo said the view isn’t her main concern. It’s Butte.
“My overall notion is that I'm totally in favor of green energy and renewable energy and so forth, but I want it to benefit my community. And I'm not understanding that that is the case,” Yeo said.
She said she’s pleased by the significant construction work to be had in building the project and data center expansion, but isn’t convinced the projects will generate much long-term local employment. She said she would like to see the specific numbers.
She’s also not convinced the power generated will directly benefit Butte.
In the invitation to the open house, Vincent wrote, “Power from the project will be introduced to the electrical grid and will serve Butte’s power needs as well as allow for further economic development to diversify our area’s economy.”
Yeo said she pushed for an answer at the open house, and left with the impression extra power generated from the plant will be sold out-of-state.
“I don't want to come on like gangbusters that I'm dead set against this. I'm not. I just want it to benefit the community,” she said.
Nicole Hanni, a lender for Wells Fargo, lives just east of the array. As with Yeo and the Roestis, the mass of panels would be in view from her kitchen window.
She said she needed more information to be convinced. She’s concerned, but not necessarily opposed. Hanni specifically wanted clarification on how many long-term jobs can be expected from the proposed Atlas expansion and whether those jobs will go to locals.
Hanni recognized changing needs in a changing climate.
“I do believe that going green is something that we all have to consider,” she said.
Like Gustafson, Hanni lives close to the industrial park and noted the noise from the fans.
Chad Snyder and his wife, Jolene, live with their three boys on the same road as Hanni.
Snyder, who works in information technology but has no affiliation with Atlas, is all for the project.
“I'm all about clean, renewable energies and resources. I'm kind of a big proponent of anything that's less carbon footprint. The only concern that I really had was how it would look visually. But that's kind of what green energy looks like. There's some give and take with anything. You can't have a whole bunch of clean, good energy without some sacrifices, unfortunately,” he said.
Snyder said it’s important for data centers to have multiple power sources.
“You can't really be taken seriously unless you have some sort of redundant power source,” he said.
His priority is the future, not the view.
“I believe in leaving a better world for our kids and grandkids,” he said.
For entirely different reasons, Dr. Jesse Cole, who lives on a hill just southwest of the project, is also in full support.
“This is a pretty good deal for all the choices that are out there, because this land is too valuable now not to be developed, especially with what's going on with real estate in Bozeman and stuff. It wouldn't take anybody to come in here and snap that property up and start building housing," he said.
He’s seen prison and wind turbine proposals come and go. If something has to go in, he’s just glad it doesn’t come decked out in bright lights.
“That’s why I live in Montana. I like to go out at night and look at the Milky Way,” he said.
Man-made climate change is a “hoax” and “most of this green energy stuff is a boondoggle,” he said, but Cole is nonetheless supportive of McDermott’s lease because he’s a strong believer in personal property rights.
“That's really his business, not mine. It's his land. He wants to develop it in that way. And I think of all the alternatives out there, from a personal standpoint, a selfish standpoint. I like this one better than the alternatives,” he said.
He likewise doesn’t care where the energy generated ends up.
“The guy's going to lease his land and make some money. If these other guys can make some money, and it brings a few jobs to Butte, that's great, but my general opinion of green energy is not very high,” Cole said.
Making a case
McDermott does have a high opinion of green energy. He’s been attempting to put in solar for six years, and finally found the right fit. He doesn’t mind the look of solar, and will continue to operate his ranch next to the array if it’s built.
“It's sure better than a housing development for me. Less impact, less people. It's clean energy. It's kind of the future. It just made sense to go that direction,” he said.
The project would be a massive generator of green energy. That energy, Vincent said, will tap into the data center substation, owned by Atlas, and there will be just a single overhead power line to connect the two groups of panels on either side of Little Basin Creek.
The Atlas data center is permitted to use 75 megawatts annually, Vincent said, though it has reduced its annual use to around 25 megawatts from 65 in recent years with efficiency changes. The expansion of eight additional buildings chockablock with processors will increase use, but not beyond the permitted limit, he said.
Even if Atlas used its full 75 megawatts annually, the solar project would have another 225 megawatts leftover if it achieves what developers say it will.
Vincent said the power could go anywhere — to NorthWestern Energy or to other utilities across the country. Regardless of where the power’s sold, it will travel through NorthWestern Energy’s transmission lines, so the company will gain a fee, Vincent said.
Although he doesn’t yet own the project, Washington said he’s in discussions with utilities, and that he has an interest in eventually supplying Montana Resources, which operates Butte’s active copper mine, with solar power.
Montana Resources is the second largest consumer of electricity in Montana.
Vincent said the project is located in a good spot.
“There's actually a good community solar report that the DEQ did. It kind of looked at community solar, and Butte figures strongly for a great area for solar development,” Vincent said, adding that being close to the Atlas substation — where a sizable chunk of the energy would find a home — is environmentally and logistically efficient.
The solar project itself will take advantage of green energy incentives, and will likely pay less in property taxes than a non-renewable energy project, Vincent said, but more than the land is taxed now.
Meanwhile, Atlas Power has expanded rapidly and so has its business property tax contribution to the state and county.
In 2017, Atlas paid about $82,000 in property taxes. In 2019, the company paid $1,952,581, and another $1,565,116 in 2020.
Of the 2020 sum, only about $128,000 went to the state and the rest to the county and school district. Over $800,000 went to the South Butte Targeted Economic Development District.
That contribution stands to go up in a big way with the Atlas expansion.
The equipment and construction during the expansion will cost around $800 million, Vincent said.
Washington said the company plans to take advantage of incentives passed by the Montana Legislature in 2019, which allows qualified new data centers operated using clean energy sources to pay less property tax.
The eight new buildings would be taxed at 0.9% for 15 years if Atlas qualifies, Vincent said, but Atlas would continue to pay the normal 6% tax on the rest of its property.
The solar project will cost around $250 million to build, Vincent said.
Vincent said an estimated 200 jobs will be generated during the two-year construction period, after which around 10 employees are expected to operate and maintain the solar project.
Tabish said construction of the eight new Atlas buildings will offer work to 90 people, including 60 union electricians.
Washington and Tabish said using local contractors is top priority on both projects. Montana-based engineering firm Cushing Terrell is designing the solar array, and Tabish said Bozeman-based Barnard Construction Company, FX Solutions, Butte-based Pioneer Technical Services, Anaconda-based Ray Peterson Electric, and Butte-based O’Keefe Drilling would all get a piece of the action from the solar project or Atlas expansion.
The programming academy Washington intends to build on the property would employ a lot more people, Tabish said.
Vincent said the solar development is a big, smart step in an inevitable direction.
“Where the benefits will really come in is establishing Butte as kind of this green energy hub where we've got more green energy being produced in this area than any other place out there,” Vincent said.
“All roads are leading to net zero,” he added.
Joe Willauer, director of the Butte Local Development Corp., agreed.
“Green energy is very much our future in a lot of ways. Of course, we need to be able to have a mix of energy for the time being. But as we look towards future energy production, we know there's a gap statewide and nationwide. The more facilities like this that we can have producing — whether it’s energy that's headed into the cryptocurrency facility or hitting the grid — green energy is a good thing,” he said.
Gustafson enjoys seeing the wildlife, and doesn’t expect herds of elk and antelope among the solar array should it arrive.
Vincent said Montana Fish, Wildlife & Parks personnel confirmed the area isn’t a major migration corridor or critical winter habitat for wildlife.
“We already did enough diligence up front to know that it doesn't fall in any of those categories, but that still doesn't mean there might not be additional things we can do within the project budget to make this thing as wildlife friendly as possible,” he said.
Vincent said noise from the Atlas data center fans has been reduced in the years the buildings have upgraded, and said noise will stay the same or be reduced going forward, construction not included.
As for the view — nobody’s pretending it won’t change, and the level of comfort with the change varies widely among those affected.
Developers conducted a flyover of the project area to map the viewshed. Vincent said he’s meeting with the concerned landowners to talk about mitigating the view with landscaping.
Simply put, Gustafson’s view will be changed as much as anyone’s.
“They seemed pretty interested in working with us to alleviate those problems. I don't think they're going to be one hundred percent perfect. I don’t think there’s any way they could do that. It's a pretty vast area that they're putting those solar panels in, and I have a view of all of them. So we just have to see what they come up with, and I'm hoping it'll be satisfactory,” Gustafson said.
This past Thursday, the Butte-Silver Bow Zoning Board denied Plus Power a special-use permit to build a five-acre utility-scale battery storage facility next to a NorthWestern Energy substation in a large open area of south Butte.
Board members cited nearby residential opposition to the project before voting it down 5-0. Residents’ chief complaints were that the area was zoned residential and it would ruin the view and area’s character.
The same day, U.S. President Joe Biden signed an executive order that the government take immediate steps to prepare economically for the climate crisis by prioritizing “financing needs associated with achieving net-zero greenhouse gas emissions for the U.S. economy by no later than 2050, limiting global average temperature rise to 1.5 degrees Celsius, and adapting to the acute and chronic impacts of climate change.”
Meanwhile, Washington said he aims to expand solar production across the state.
“I want it all,” he said.
The Butte project faces a major hurdle, however.
On June 17, the developers of the Basin Creek Solar Project will seek a similar exception to the one denied to Plus Power — the special use of R1-S, or single family suburban residential land, for light industrial use.
Vincent said the expansion of the Atlas data center will be closely tied to the outcome of the Zoning Board decision. Considering the taxes paid by Atlas and promised growth, the permit seems to carry broad economic implications for the area.
The decision also stands to impact landowners who appreciate their undeveloped rural life and view, and the course of green energy production in the harrowing time of climate change.