At present, the energy footprint of Bitcoin is hovering around 137.4 Terawatt hours per year, the equivalent of an entire country’s energy use. In fact, the cryptocurrency’s annual energy usage currently ranks between that of Ukraine and Egypt – countries of over 40 and 100 million people, respectively. The sky-high energy demand of mining cryptocurrencies has earned scorn and criticism from the likes of Bill Gates, Elon Musk, and now the United States Congress. The exact amount of energy being used by Bitcoin miners in the United States can only be estimated. Mining operations are decentralized, anonymous, and can easily fly under the radar, making the quantification of their energy footprint a tricky task. Now, U.S. lawmakers are trying to change that. This week eight Democratic congressional members sent a letter to a few key Bitcoin mining operations asking them to share information about “how much electricity they use, where it comes from, and how they plan to grow in the US.” Furthermore, just last week, the House Energy & Commerce Committee held an oversight hearing on cryptocurrency mining’s impact on energy held by the House Energy & Commerce Committee last week.
The U.S. isn’t the only country cracking down on Bitcoin mining’s excessive energy use in recent months. Kazakhstan and Kosovo, poor countries with subsidized energy prices, were being sucked dry by crypto-mining operations capitalizing on the countries’ cheap power prices, and have both taken moves to either temporarily or permanently ban the practice.
Bitcoin and similar blockchain-based cryptocurrencies suck up so much energy because they require the use of supercomputers to solve complex proof-of-work calculations, as well as fans to cool them down. The first of these computers to solve a problem gets rewarded with a fraction of a Bitcoin, therefore incentivizing the adoption of more and more energy-intensive supercomputing systems. In order to keep the system secure and competitive, and to keep Bitcoin production from exploding along with the number of computers joining the race, these problems become more and more complex as more miners join the hunt, meaning that each subsequent Bitcoin requires more energy to mine than the one before it. In 2009 you could mine Bitcoin using just a few seconds’ worth of household electricity. In 2021 you had to use about 9 years’ worth.
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All of this goes to say that Bitcoin mining is both environmentally taxing and extremely expensive. These factors have led many miners to get creative about where they source their energy. In as far-flung places as Siberia and West Texas, Bitcoin miners are setting up shop in oil fields to run their operations off of stranded natural gas, a byproduct of oil drilling which would normally just be vented directly into the atmosphere. In Pennsylvania, Bitcoin miners are powering their operations through the use of coal waste, “a combination of rock, coal, and other materials that were deemed unsuitable for burning and left abandoned since the 1970s when coal mines in the area were closed” according to reporting from ABC.
On the one hand, these miners are taking advantage of a hazardous waste product that threatens to leach into water sources if left where they are, and makes use of already-extracted coal instead of incentivizing more coal production. Similar arguments can be made in favor of the natural gas that oilfield crypto-miners are diverting from being vented off. However, both of these cases are points of serious contention with environmentalists and climate-conscious critics, as both involve burning fossil fuels which ultimately release greenhouse gases into the atmosphere.
As Rob Altenburg, director of the environmental nonprofit Penn Future, told ABC about the coal-waste fuelled miners: “They're not removing pollution. They're moving pollution. They're moving pollution from the land and they're moving it to the air.”
By Haley Zaremba for Oilprice.com
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