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Bitcoin Has a Feel-Good Energy Story

The problem is, we don’t know how much energy it’s actually using.

Bitcoin pollution.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

The price of Bitcoin set a new all time high this week, crossing the $69,000 mark on Tuesday before falling back down to around $67,500 by Thursday afternoon. That almost certainly means Bitcoin’s energy usage is rising, too — although any chance of getting a precise idea of how much, even just in the U.S., may be delayed for months. Last week, the U.S. Energy Information Administration agreed to stop collecting data on crypto mining operations after a federal court in Texas put a halt on the project until the EIA goes through a more fulsome approval process.

That Bitcoin eats up a lot of power is beyond dispute. Bitcoin mining involves solving increasingly complex math problems, which at this point requires vast amounts of computing power; using outside data, the EIA estimated that crypto accounts for around 2% of the nation’s total electricity use. Both the industry’s electricity usage and how it participates in electricity markets have been subject to criticism from Democratic lawmakers, who have pushed for more information-gathering. If the price of Bitcoin continues to climb, that skepticism could ratchet up.

“There is a very direct relationship between the value of what is being mined by the miners and how much is being spent on electricity,” Alex De Vries, a cryptocurrency and energy researcher, told me.

An extensive New York Times investigation last year found that large-scale mining operations were “putting immense pressure on the power grid,” and that “their operations can create costs — including higher electricity bills and enormous carbon pollution — for everyone around them.” According to the University of Cambridge Judge Business School, Bitcoin’s energy consumption has risen about 50% in the past year, from an annualized rate of around 110 terawatt-hours a year just over 163 TWh, comparable to the electricity production of Ukraine or Pakistan. (That is, of course, an estimate, based on a model derived from the performance of mining hardware and the assumption that miners only operate with hardware that allows them to mine Bitcoin profitably.)

With all the attention on consumption and emissions, Bitcoin miners have been eager to portray themselves as, if not quite the goodies, at least not the baddies.

“The industry as a whole has a good story to tell about the energy piece,” Tom Mapes, president of a newly formed industry group called the Digital Energy Council, told me. He also told me that I “have to be realistic about it. We do use a lot of power — not to say that using power in every facet is bad.”

The feel-good Bitcoin energy story goes something like this: Crypto miners are always ready to use energy at the right price — and to shut things down at the right price, too. “We have the ability as a bulk power user of our size has the ability to flex load like no another,” Mapes said. “Datacenters cannot flex load like this. We can be built in as a tool to work within constraints of these grids.”

If a mining facility is co-located with an energy resource, it can be there to purchase power production that might otherwise be curtailed because there isn’t enough transmission capacity to get it to other customers. It can also be a buyer of first resort for a newly developed generator or it can keep an old one in business, as Bitcoin mining has with some fossil fuel generators.

“You tend to see Bitcoin miners anywhere there’s stranded energy and excess power,” said Margot Paez, a fellow at the Bitcoin Policy Institute. There are some examples of crypto mining co-located with renewables, but that does not always mean that the power they use is entirely renewable. There’s also a crypto mining operation set up at a nuclear power plant in Pennsylvania, adjacent to what will be an Amazon Web Services data center.

The main way crypto operations interact with the grid is not by supporting any particular resource, though, but rather by being flexible about when they operate. Shutting off when demand is high can be quite lucrative — sometimes even more so than the crypto mining itself.

Riot Networks, a mining company with extensive operations in Texas and a plaintiff in the EIA record collection suit, has become a flashpoint for crypto’s interaction with the electricity markets precisely because it eagerly shares data with investors and the public about its participation in programs to maintain grid stability. In August, when demand hit record highs and Texas consumers were asked to conserve energy, Riot reported $8.6 million in revenue from selling Bitcoins it had mined and $31.6 million either from selling power it had bought for a prearranged price back to the grid at the higher market price or from incentive payments for being willing to power down during demand spikes.

The company’s chief executive said that last August “was a landmark month for Riot in showcasing the benefits of our unique power strategy.” (Of the 34 large Bitcoin mining operations in the New York Times investigation, Riot was the largest and had the most fossil fuel consumption attributed to it.)

But that was then and this is now. The revenues Riot is deriving from Bitcoin mining are likely substantially greater than they were five or six months ago, as the price of Bitcoin has almost doubled. The company has told investors that it costs around $7,500 to mine a single Bitcoin, which could mean that it and other crypto miners operating strategically in the electricity market will be less willing to sell power back to the grid or turn off during demand spikes.

If you’re thinking this all sounds a lot like the conversation around demand response, well, so was I. Demand response is something climate people love to talk about. They want consumers to get paid for using less power when demand spikes, and they think it’s really neat that you can charge an electric car overnight when demand is low and want you to be able to sell that power back to the grid when demand gets high.

Putting energy consumers near renewables and other non-carbon-generating energy sources that can absorb excess power when renewable production is “too high” for the grid is something you hear about a lot with, say, hydrogen production or energy storage. Why let that energy go to waste when we could incentivize people to store it, instead?

But an electrolyzer or a battery is not just a clever way to figure out how to deal with the peaks and valleys of variable renewable energy resources like wind and solar, it’s also potentially a key component of a decarbonized energy system. It doesn’t just consume non-carbon energy, it can store and transfer carbon-free energy as well.

Crypto, on the other hand, takes energy, renewable or not, and turns it into money. It’s a greedy and flexible consumer of electricity, and there are market designs where non-carbon generators would be happy to work with such a consumer. But from the perspective of the energy system, a consumer is all it will ever be.


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. Read More

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