As crypto company departs Hardin, what's next for the communities it leaves behind?
Rhonda Lehr followed her husband to Hardin almost two decades ago for a job at the nearby generating station when it first opened in 2006. At the city chamber where she now works-part time, she keeps a pile of applications handy for jobs at the plant.
“We probably have a couple every week come in for an app,” she said.
The Hardin station employs about 40 people, and the plant’s owner, Maryland-Headquartered Beowulf Electricity & Data, says about half of those are residents of Big Horn County, where unemployment is around 6% – more than double the state’s rate.
“If [the plant] went bye-bye, it would be a bad thing,” Lehr said. “A really bad thing.”
The Hardin Generating Station was close to shuttering four years ago before Beowulf entered into an exclusive agreement with Nevada-based cryptocurrency company Marathon Digital Holdings and repurposed the station to fuel the crypto mining operations.
That was in 2020. Now, just two years later, Marathon says it’s leaving Hardin and moving its computers to a wind farm in Texas as part of a pledge to go 100% carbon-neutral by 2023.
“We made the decision last year that as a company, we needed to be carbon neutral in our mining operations to properly support the environment, grid and also our shareholders who want us to be obviously good corporate citizens relative to the amount of carbon we've put out,” said Marathon CEO Fred Thiel.
Crypto mining uses thousands of computers to verify digital transactions and produce a form of digital currency called bitcoin. It’s an energy-intensive process that analysts say emits the same amount of carbon as some small countries produce annually — and it could be the only thing keeping the 100-megawatt Hardin generating station active as renewable energy catches up to fossil fuel electricity generation in the United States.
Other fossil fuel producers that partnered with crypto over the last couple years at plants in places like Pennsylvania and New York are also looking for ways to lower high emissions, leaving communities dependent on coal much in the same place as they were when those companies arrived.
Big Horn County overlaps with the Crow reservation, where around 29% of people live below the poverty line. The tribe issues dividends from coal sales to its members, but mineral profits have been shrinking in recent years alongside a string of mine bankruptcies and closures.
Shawn Walks Over Ice is a member of the Crow Tribe and says he’s seen dividends decline.
"That kind of pay, that shows you that they're struggling,” he said. “They’re not making money.”
Walks Over Ice used to work at Marathon’s data hub. He’s doubtful about the plant’s partnership with cryptocurrency and its benefit to the Crow community. He says he’d like to see the tribe find solutions internally.
“You got to try to create your own structure and your own business to get out of this poverty. Be self-sufficient,” he said.
Montana State University Associate Professor Julia Haggerty researches rural communities and their relationships with extractive industries like coal. She says it’s understandable that communities might look favorably on an opportunity to keep an established plant open.
She says community buy-in is one of the key traits for successful economic diversification.
“To the extent that it is possible, the more local ownership and investment of dollars from within the community, the region, the state geography,” she said, “the more returns from that community will circulate locally and generate local prosperity.”
Marathon CEO Fred Thiel says although the company is moving its computers to Texas, the Big Horn Data Hub and its millions of dollars' worth of infrastructure will stay in Hardin.
“We're leaving all the infrastructure there intact specifically so another miner can come in right behind us with a minimal delay and then coming up to speed,” he said.
Plant owner Beowulf tells YPR it’s in discussions with potential tenants that are interested in moving into the Big Horn Data Hub, but with crypto operations like Marathon already moving on to the next energy source, it’s unclear how long those partnerships would last.