Crypto Climate Change

Who knew that the next wave of destructive mining would gobble up huge amounts of electricity, further delaying our transition from fossil fuels?

Yup, Bitcoin mining. The new energy hog.

For those who don’t understand how this 21st Century “mining” works, and why it uses such huge amounts of electricity, read this recent Investopedia explainer, “How Does Bitcoin Mining Work?

The explainer says it this way, “It’s guesswork, but with the total number of possible guesses for each of these problems being on the order of trillions, it’s incredibly arduous work. In order to solve a problem first, miners need a lot of computing power. The final bitcoin won’t be circulated until around the year 2140.”

In Bobspeak, it basically comes down to guessing 64 hexadecimal digits, with each digit being a combination of ten numbers: zero through nine, and six letters: a through f, which yields the possibility of 16 characters for each of the 64 digits. Bitcoin “miners” are using huge computers with cooling fans, or networks of computers (aka “mining pools”), to guess the correct “target hash.” Since all target hashes begin with at least eight zeroes, you’re down to guessing the final fifty six digits. Wow! That’s fifty six digits with sixteen possibilities each.

Talk about long shots! Your current odds are 1 in 17.59 trillion, repeat, 1 in 17,590,000,000,000. That tells you why such massive computing power, with all the electricity it requires, is the key to guessing the ‘target hash’ and earn a prize of 6.25 Bitcoin for doing so, with that current value being around three hundred and sixty thousand U.S. dollars.

So where do they get all that electricity?

Reading a recent news story at CleanTechnica we learn that, “Electricity from coal jumped from an 18.2% share in the first two months of 2020, to 24.8% in January and February of 2021.”

That’s an increase of 36% and it certainly doesn’t follow the recent trend of coal power plant closings, while more natural gas “peaker plants” have been built.

Then comes this May 7th Mother Jones story, “How Bitcoin Mining Keeps Old Fossil-Fuel Plants Alive.” The story further details the huge amounts of electricity required to mine Bitcoin, and how one old power plant that was due to close in New York state, but gained new life, providing the power needed for high levels of this “energy hungry” Bitcoin mining.

It’s an interesting story, written by Jessica McKenzie, describing that energy use this way: “Bitcoin mining is now estimated to gobble up more electricity than many entire countries. Since 2019, when the University of Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finance placed the cryptocurrency’s power needs ahead of Switzerland’s, its consumption has more than doubled, surpassing that of Sweden.”

So what about that old coal powerhouse in New York state that was given new life? The Greenidge Plant was actually no longer needed for public electricity generation by the time it reopened, but still had the support of a $2 million economic grant, since it had been converted to burning fracked gas. What?

Wait a minute, fracking is banned in New York, and the state has ambitious goals to break the rest of its fossil fuel habit, moving toward the increased use of renewable energy. So this entire scenario sounds more like, “One step forward, and two steps back.” Fire up more shale gas drilling rigs to power more Bitcoin mining rigs.

Virtual reality climate destruction

We learn more from the Mother Jones story, reading that: “The (Greenidge) plant’s greenhouse gas emissions increased nearly tenfold from 2019 to 2020, according to DEC records obtained by the Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes, one of several local environmental groups that have risen up in opposition to the plant. The equivalent of over 220,000 metric tons of carbon dioxide were emitted over the course of last year, a volume comparable to putting nearly 50,000 new cars on the road. That’s just a fraction of the 580,000 metric tons the plant is currently permitted to emit annually.”

That repurposed coal powerhouse still burns fossil fuel, creating additional environmental hazards for Lake Seneca, especially as the electricity demands increase at Greenidge, mining hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of additional Bitcoin. To what goal, making someone richer, while ignoring that computer mining is speeding climate change? You could call it “Mad Money.”

More of the same old, same old, “Privatize the profits while socializing the costs.” We refer to coal mining’s environmental legacy as “Acid Mine Drainage.” What will the environmental legacy of cryptocurrency mining be called?

“Crypto Climate Change?”
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