Data center considered as possible reuse for historic Rainbow Powerhouse

The historic Rainbow Powerhouse on the Missouri River may be getting new life.

In May, Susteen, Inc. of Irvine, Cali. submitted a proposal to install a block chain model data center in the former powerhouse, which is owned by NorthWestern Energy.

NWE has until July 30 to submit a plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission on whether it will reuse or demolish the 1910 building.

NWE said Monday that the company is looking at all of the options for the powerhouse.

Efforts continuing to save Rainbow Powerhouse from demolition

The City-County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission formed a subcommittee focused on finding a repurposing for the powerhouse and on Monday said they were hopeful NWE would consider Susteen’s proposal.

Peter Jennings, HPAC vice chair, said they met July 1 with representatives from Susteen and NWE and have been invited to a conference call with NWE for further discussion.

Jennings said they’re hopeful though previously NWE had expressed a possible preference for demolition.

Around 2008, plans for replacing the hydroelectric facility were beginning and a core group of people started working to find someone or something to repurpose the facility.

Those efforts are accelerating now since a federal agency has placed a July 2019 deadline on local efforts to have a viable plan in place.

The powerhouse came offline in 2013 when the new powerhouse became operational. The facility ownership changed from PPL to Northwestern Energy in 2014 and the company commissioned a $50,000 feasibility study on options for repurposing the powerhouse. The study was completed in 2018. NWE has also completed the environmental reviews needed to demolish the powerhouse.

Options for the site are limited since it’s within an active hydroelectric facility, has county road issues and other access issues. The proximity to an active utility plant is the most problematic and the site can’t be used for something that would bring high traffic volume, such as residential, retail, dining and drinking or even a museum.

Jennings said the Susteen lease proposal addressed the security, safety and access concerns identified by NWE in the feasibility study.

Susteen is a technology company established in 1992 specializing in digital forensics, providing hardware and software products to international law enforcement and government agencies, according to the HPAC committee.

Equipment for its new digital currency division would occupy the powerhouse.

“This facility is a great opportunity for our project. It is a sound building with plenty of room in a secure location near a large power source-all critical requirements of our business,” Tom Sanders, Susteen’s chief technology officer, said in a release. “We are very pleased with the economic win-win this sets up for our investment, Northwestern Energy’s need to determine the building’s future and local economic development.”

Jennings said that by his research, if Susteen’s proposal was accepted, it would be the only historic powerhouse repurposed for a data center in the world.

Jennings said that Susteen had been looking for property in the region because of the substations and Sanders had talked to a real estate agent in the area who suggested that he call Jennings.

If the proposal is accepted, additional studies would likely be required for the data center to tie into NWE’s power grid.

Jennings said that while they are philosophically opposed to demolishing the powerhouse, “preservation for its own sake is untenable.”

That’s why, he said, the collaboration between the historic preservation commission, NWE and Susteen is good for preservation and business development.

Last fall, HPAC hosted a public meeting on the future of the Rainbow Powerhouse. During the meeting, Jennings mentioned the potential for a data center.

NWE also presented during the meeting, as did Tony Houtz, a local architect, on the findings of the feasibility study.

In today’s dollars, it would cost about $20 million to build a structure equivalent to the powerhouse on the Missouri River that has significant architectural and historical important, Ellen Sievert, the former city-county historic preservation officer, said during a public meeting in late October.

“No one wants to waste the effort that went into building the Rainbow powerhouse,” she said, and considers it 56,000 square feet of opportunity.

Public meeting is Thursday on repurposing the Rainbow Powerhouse

“There’s more value in this structure than meets the eye or you might expect,” Houtz said.

About 25 people attended the meeting, including city and county officials, state parks officials and staff from Sen. Jon Tester’s office, among others.

Construction on the 80-foot wide and 326-foot long powerhouse began in 1909 and was completed in 1910, along with the dam and the power line. Electricity was first transmitted to Butte in 1910, according to a fact sheet from the HPAC.

Additions were completed in 1916 and 1930, Houtz said of the steel and brick structure.

“You can tell they spent some time and took care when they designed this,” he said of the architectural details of the Rainbow powerhouse.

Mary Gail Sullivan, manager of environmental permitting and compliance at Northwestern Energy, said in October that the company is committed to “doing the right thing” and looking for partners, but they are limited for redevelopment options by federal regulations.

Dam safety is the top priority, she said, since the old powerhouse is on the same site as an active hydropower operation.

Northwestern Energy is preparing a plan for demolition, Sullivan said in October, but are continuing to support local efforts to find another use for the powerhouse that will be safe and compatible with existing operations.

One of the challenges is that almost nothing in the building meets current codes since it’s more than a century old and was built for industrial use, not regular human use, Houtz said. But, the way it’s constructed helps code compliance efforts since it allows flexibility in upgrading the places that would need upgrading, he said.

“No matter what we do, we want to continue to tell the the history of the building,” he said in October.