With the computing power that drives the popular cryptocurrency bitcoin now consuming nearly as much energy as Argentina, analysts are warning the renegade technology’s carbon footprint will only get worse as it becomes more popular.
Bitcoin “miners” say those impacts will lessen as utilities shift to renewable energy sources, and their continuing, global quest for the cheapest power for their incredibly electricity-intensive operations gives them their own motivation to shift off fossil fuels. But bitcoin still represents a massive and rapidly-growing source of demand, at a time when grids will be expected to simultaneously shut down fossil fuel generation, build out new renewable sources of power, and meet a wider range of energy needs as space heat and vehicles rapidly electrify.
Concerns about bitcoin’s potential carbon footprint date back to 2009, but rose to “serious prominence” in 2017, The Independent reports, “when a major price rally drastically pushed up its energy needs to the level of a small country.” The currency’s value hit a new all-time high last week, and “this time its energy requirements are even greater.”
The problem is fundamental to the way bitcoin operates, tracing back to the “vast amounts of computer processing power” required to solve the “complex but arbitrary mathematical equations” at the heart of the mining process, The Independent explains.
“Bitcoin’s energy consumption has more than quadrupled since the beginning of its last peak in 2017 and it is set to get worse because energy inefficiency is built into bitcoin’s DNA,” said Charles Hoskinson, CEO of IOHK, cited by The Independent as a leading cryptography firm.
That means the currency’s carbon footprint “will get exponentially worse, because the more its price rises, the more competition there is for the currency and thus the more energy it consumes.”
The majority of bitcoin miners are based in China, where more than two-thirds of the electricity is still generated from coal, The Independent says. But bitcoin miners have been shifting their operations to countries like Iceland and Norway, where 100% of the electricity comes from renewable sources like hydropower and geothermal, and low temperatures offer a degree of natural cooling for overheating servers. Between 2018 and 2020, the proportion of cryptocurrency miners using renewable electricity rose from 60 to 76%, the paper states, citing a University of Cambridge benchmarking study.
None of which addresses the added demand bitcoin is expected to bring to grid systems that will already be facing new and increasing demands for electricity in the years ahead. But DigitalMint COO Don Wyper told The Independent that bitcoin still offers a boost to energy efficiency if it’s compared not to national currencies, as most of us might think, but to “store-of-value” assets like gold—an industry that he said consumes 132 million megawatt-hours of electricity per year, the output of about 37½ 500-megawatt coal plants.
“If bitcoin can become the digital currency it was initially envisioned, we’ll need to consider all the electricity consumed via currency creation, destruction, transmittance, securitization, loss, etc.,” he said. “I personally believe climate change is one of the most important issues in our world today, but people who say bitcoin will lead to even more environmental destruction don’t understand that bitcoin is actually acting as an accelerant to helping our environment.”
New cryptocurrencies under development are also looking to reduce the electricity required by the underlying technology, The Independent reports.