NorthWestern submits data center lease proposal to federal regulators for historic Rainbow Powerhouse

NorthWestern Energy has submitted a plan to the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission calling for the historic powerhouse at Rainbow Dam to be leased for a blockchain model data center.

NorthWestern said on July 30 that if FERC approves the plan, the powerhouse will be leased by Susteen Inc. out of California.

July 30 was the deadline to submit the plan to FERC.

Data center considered as possible reuse for historic Rainbow Powerhouse

Earlier this month, members of the City-County Historic Preservation Advisory Commission held a press conference discussing Susteen’s proposal and asking the public to encourage NorthWestern to consider the lease proposal instead of demolishing the powerhouse that was built in 1909.

“This remarkable effort included creative vision to explore options that fit the unique safety and security requirements for this facility, located in close proximity to an active utility plant,” Mary Gail Sullivan, NorthWestern Energy director of environmental and land permitting and compliance, said in a release. “This project would not have developed without the commitment of NorthWestern Energy and the members of the Cascade County Historical Preservation Old Rainbow Powerhouse Repurposing Committee. The committee looked long and hard for an acceptable use of the building. Susteen was a pleasant surprise.”

Efforts continuing to save Rainbow Powerhouse from 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.

Public meeting is Thursday on repurposing the Rainbow 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.

Susteen is a technology company established in 1992 specializing in digital forensics, providing hardware and software products to international law enforcement and government agencies. Equipment for its new digital currency division will occupy the powerhouse. Susteen views the powerhouse’s structural soundness, size, and secure location, as ideal for its needs.

“Susteen is excited to bring cutting-edge technologies and breakthrough ideas to the Rainbow Powerhouse,” Tom Sanders, Susteen’s chief technology officer, said in a release. “We hope to establish our official historical building status, start improvements and open our Ethereum-powered blockchain data center quickly.  We have much to do over the coming months and are looking forward to engaging with the community in Cascade County and Great Falls.”

Construction on the 80-foot-wide and 326-foot-long original Rainbow 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. Additions were completed in 1916 and 1930, according to NorthWestern.

“Bringing a new industry to our community and having a new business investing in the county is a huge win for Cascade County,” Cascade County Commissioner Jane Weber, who is a member of the HPAC Old Rainbow Powerhouse Repurposing Committee,said in a release. “This project is about economic development with the bonus of retaining a well-loved and appreciated historic building on the landscape.”

“Historic preservation hitched to economic development is a happy marriage,” Peter Jennings, HPAC vice president, said in a release. “This project is the result of applied faith and persistence by local visionaries and opportunity on the world wide web. We are grateful to NorthWestern Energy for their disciplined and engaged partnership, and we welcome Susteen’s enterprising spirit bringing internet-era industry to the old Rainbow Powerhouse and Cascade County.”