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A cryptocurrency “mining” facility, a completely new kind of development for Bulloch County – but already established in neighboring counties and elsewhere in Georgia – is moving forward in the county’s zoning approval processes.
It won’t be a literal mine digging in the external world, but a large collection of banked server-like computers inside steel pods, like shipping containers, mounted on concrete foundations surrounded by a gravel pad. The computers mine data to verify transactions made with encrypted digital currencies such as Bitcoin, which exist independently of governments. The racks of computers generate a lot of heat and so have many cooling fans, which make continuous noise.
This has raised some concerns among neighbors of the site, which is at the intersection of Georgia Highway 119 and the 119 Spur, across from Mud Road southeast of Stilson. But the data center, while expected to create just one job, would be a huge electric power customer for Metter-based Excelsior Electric Membership Corporation and a tax revenue source for Bulloch County’s local governments and school system.
“This is a new facility that brings a capital investment somewhere in the neighborhood of $30 million, but it doesn’t have any full-time jobs. It’s largely an unmanned facility,” said Greg Proctor, CEO of Excelsior EMC.
The data center would employ one maintenance technician, according to county officials, but possibly not a full-time one just for this location, Proctor said. The site will be fenced and remotely monitored through a security system that includes video cameras.
“But it’s going to have a capital investment that they’re going to pay ad valorem taxes on, it’s going to use a lot of power, and so it’s going to pay sales tax on the power that they use there,” Proctor said. “So in those regards it’s very similar to any other new business that comes to the county.”
Some county officials have suggested the data mining center’s operating company could pay Excelsior a couple of million dollars a year for power.
Interviewed Friday, Proctor wouldn’t divulge the site’s projected annual electric bill, as potentially proprietary information of an EMC customer.
But he agreed that an estimate of about $200,000 in annual tax revenue to the local governments was “in the ballpark.”
Consider that the proposed facility is rated at 10 megawatts, which local officials note is only a fraction the power consumption of some cryptocurrency mining operations elsewhere in the nation.
But 10 megawatts is 10 million watts, or 10,000 kilowatts. The average home’s monthly consumption of electricity in 2020 was 893 kilowatt-hours nationwide and 1,081 kilowatt-hours in Georgia, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration reports, available at www.eia.gov.
A 10-megawatt data mining center operating at maximum power would use 10,000 kilowatt-hours in 60 minutes.
“Their biggest input is the cost of electricity, and the electric rates in Georgia are lower than the national averages, so they’re looking at Georgia and they’re looking at other states that have lower than average electric rates,” Proctor said.
That was his answer when asked why so many cryptocurrency mining companies are locating in Georgia. Relatively cheap land and low taxes are sometimes also cited as factors. A Chinese-Canadian firm contracted last year to build a cryptocurrency center at Screven County’s industrial park near Sylvania. Another, served by Altamaha EMC, operates within the city limits of Swainsboro in Emanuel County.
The Bulloch County cryptocurrency data center would be a first for Excelsior EMC, which would not operate the facility itself but is securing the site for a company, or group of companies, called LN Mining, which operates the one in Swainsboro.
The currently proposed site is on the almost 5.5-acre grounds of a power substation owned by Georgia Transmission Corporation, which is in turn owned by 38 electric membership cooperatives, or EMCs, in the state. It owns and maintains high-voltage transmission lines and substations for the EMCs.
Excelsior EMC has an option to buy an acre or a little more within the substation property from GTC for the crypto mining operation, Proctor said. A diagram on file with the county’s planning and development office shows this as long rectangle within the larger parcel. With the rectangle are 11 others, apparently representing the processor pods or their support slabs and the small office or maintenance building.
Thursday evening, the request to allow a cryptocurrency mining operation as a conditional use in an AG-5 agricultural zone went before the county Planning and Zoning Commission for a hearing. With only four of its seven members present, the board voted 3-1 to recommend approval, with staff conditions, to the elected Bulloch County commissioners. The commissioners are expected to receive the request, with a further hearing, at their 5:30 p.m. meeting Aug. 2.
But it won’t be the first time they have heard of this. The commissioners on June 7 adopted an amendment to the county zoning ordinance to allow cryptocurrency mining operations as conditional uses in Ag-5, Light Industrial and Heavy Industrial zones.
“A conditional use allows the local government to review each individual application, and based on that specific site we would develop some conditions that would mitigate any of the factors that would be concerning, or at least we try to mitigate it,” said Planning and Development Director James Pope.
The amended ordinance also sets specific limits on the intensity of sound that any crypto data centers can generate. Excelsior EMC directed the county staff to an audio engineering consulting firm with experience with these facilities. Bulloch County officials, including commissioners, also visited the Swainsboro facility before adopting the amendment.
“We considered not just the decibel level but the variation in tone. …,”Pope said. “You know you can have a noise that varies by tone that goes up and down, and that’s more aggravating than just a noise that’s constant.”
Exactly how that is to be checked and the allowed variations for different frequency ranges is spelled out in the ordinance. But the more general rule is that the continuous sound level at the nearest occupied home or with a “defined sensitive receiver” must not exceed 50 decibels at night or 45 decibels during the day.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, at www.cdc.gov, has a chart citing the hum of a refrigerator as an example of a 40 decibel noise and normal conversation or the sound of an air conditioner as registering 60 decibels. Incidentally, the way decibels work, 60 dB is 10 times louder than 50 dB and 100 times louder than 40 dB.
Noise was the main concern cited by three residents who spoke in opposition during Thursday’s hearing. Two of them were a married couple, Ken and Lynette Williams, who built their retirement home in Bulloch County and moved in just a year ago.
“I don’t want to listen to these fans run. I just moved down here a year ago, and I moved to the country for some solitude, and it’s enough with (Highway) 119 when they put all the rumble strips in,” Ken Williams told the zoning board.
But Proctor spoke to the three neighbors after the meeting. One of the things he told them was that Excelsior EMC has an option on five acres of land next to the substation as an alternative site that could allow more room for sound buffering or other changes.
Friday, Williams said he still has concerns but appreciates that the power company is attempting to address the noise issue.