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Sparks

One of America’s Most Conservative Politicians Is a Crypto Skeptic Now

Don’t mess with Texas’ power demand.

Dan Patrick.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

Load growth is becoming controversial in Texas, where its isolated, uniquely free market electricity system makes a sometimes awkward fit with the state’s distinctive right-wing politics. They crashed together Wednesday, when the state’s conservative Lieutenant Governor Dan Patrick, who a few weeks ago was attending Donald Trump’s criminal trialin New York City, expressed skepticism of the state’s bitcoin mining industry and the prospect of more data centers coming to Texas.

Responding to “shocking” testimony from the head of ERCOT, which manages about 90% of Texas’s electricity grid, Patrick wrote on X, “We need to take a close look at those two industries [crypto and AI]. They produce very few jobs compared to the incredible demands they place on our grid. Crypto mining may actually make more money selling electricity back to the grid than from their crypto mining operations."

Texas has become a center of the crypto mining industry precisely because of how flexible and market-oriented the state’s grid is. Crypto miners in Texas can take advantage of ERCOT’s “demand response” programs, which pay large users of electricity to be willing to shut down when power is scarce and expensive on the grid, and have a relatively easy time getting onto the grid.

The U.S. Energy Information Administration has estimated that crypto mining makes up about 2% of the country’s electricity demand, and the industry’s power usage has come under scrutiny from politicians before, but typically from Democrats.

Riot Networks, a crypto miner based in Texas, has at times made dramatically more money from its interactions with the grid than by actually generating Bitcoin. Last August, when Texas was setting records for electricity demand, the company made $31.6 million from selling power back to the grid that it had previously bought for a prearranged price, or from incentive payments for being willing to power down in moments of peak demand, compared to $8.6 million from crypto mining. The result, the company’s chief executive said in a statement, “was a landmark month for Riot in showcasing the benefits of our unique power strategy.”

The miners have also been blamed for raising pricesfor Texas residents and businesses who can’t be as flexible with their power demand, as well as for the greenhouse gas emissions generated by their activity.

Patrick, oddly enough and almost certainly inadvertently, echoed an extensive 2013 New York Timesstory when he said that “Texans will ultimately pay the price” for high power demand from this crypto and data operations. “I’m more interested in building the grid to service customers in their homes, apartments, and normal businesses and keeping costs as low as possible for them instead of for very niche industries that have massive power demands and produce few jobs. We want data centers, but it can’t be the Wild Wild West of data centers and crypto miners crashing our grid and turning the lights off,” Patrick wrote.

(The New York Times: “Other major energy users, like factories and hospitals, cannot reduce their power use as routinely or dramatically without severe consequences,” and “other industries, including metals and plastics manufacturing, also require large amounts of electricity, causing pollution and raising power prices. But Bitcoin mines bring significantly fewer jobs.”)

At the same time, Trump has been making a concerted play for the crypto community, including miners. He has promised to commute the sentence of Ross Ulbricht, who operated The Silk Road, an online marketplace (for, among other things, illegal drugs) that used crypto. (He’s serving a life sentencefor narcotics distribution and a host of conspiracy charges.) On Wednesday, Trump posted to Truth Social, “Bitcoin mining may be our last line of defense against a CBDC,” a.k.a. a central bank digital currency. “Biden’s hatred of Bitcoin only helps China, Russia, and the Radical Communist Left. We want all the remaining Bitcoin to be MADE IN THE USA!!! It will help us be ENERGY DOMINANT!!!”

Trump in the past has sounded the Bitcoin skeptic, having tweeted in 2019, “I am not a fan of Bitcoin and other Cryptocurrencies, which are not money, and whose value is highly volatile and based on thin air. Unregulated Crypto Assets can facilitate unlawful behavior, including drug trade and other illegal activity....,” but has since seemed to have, for now, come around.

While Trump is making a concerted play to win over new constituencies for his election bid, Patrick was responding to testimony from the head of ERCOT that Texas’s power demand will grow faster than previously estimated, and that electricity supply may need to almost double in the next 10 years at the latest.

That will require substantial new supply. While Texas is leading the nationin installation of utility-scale solar and is the number one state for wind thanks to a combination of its large size, growing population and electricity demand, large sunny and windy areas,and a more light-touch approachto regulation and hooking up to the grid, it is also embracing state planning for its fossil energy sector. Texas has established a $5 billion fund to provide low-cost financing to developers of dispatchable power generatorsthat can be turned on and off at any time — largely natural gas.

Patrick had said earlier in a statement, “We must bring new dispatchablegeneration (primarily new natural gas plants) to Texas to ensure we maintain reliable power under any circumstance.”

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Matthew Zeitlin profile image

Matthew Zeitlin

Matthew is a correspondent at Heatmap. Previously he was an economics reporter at Grid, where he covered macroeconomics and energy, and a business reporter at BuzzFeed News, where he covered finance. He has written for The New York Times, the Guardian, Barron's, and New York Magazine.

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