August 21, 20185min714

Alarm Over Bitcoin Mining is a Red Herring: Energy Researcher

The amount of electricity consumed by bitcoin mining is not the global environmental crisis it is often portrayed to be. This is the professional assessment of Dr. Katrina Kelly-Pitou,  a research associate in electrical and computer engineering at the University of Pittsburgh.

‘New Technologies Are Energy Intensive’

Writing in an article penned for non-profit academic media outlet The Conversation, Kelly-Pitou criticizes the characterization of bitcoin mining’s energy consumption as some sort of fatal design flaw, stating that the general narrative around cryptocurrency as an environmental risk is a gross oversimplification that encourages the spread of factual inaccuracies as received wisdom.

Explaining why she thinks of the so-called “bitcoin energy crisis” as a red herring, she says:

“I am a researcher who studies clean energy technology, specifically the transition toward decarbonized energy systems…New technologies – such as data centers, computers and before them trains, planes and automobiles – are often energy-intensive. Over time, all of these have become more efficient, a natural progression of any technology: Saving energy equates to saving costs.”

At a time when a lot of the conversation around the future of bitcoin mining is dominated by statistics such as the fact that it currently consumes almost as much electricity as the Republic of Ireland, Kelly-Pitou believes that to restrict the conversation to the energy consumption of bitcoin mining alone is to miss a larger truth about energy and environmental concerns.

In her opinion, the use of renewable energy allows for increased power consumption for any purpose including bitcoin mining without having any negative environmental impact. The conversation should instead, she says, be centered around where the electricity used to power cryptocurrency mining comes from and how it is generated.

Bitcoin Mining is ‘Not the Bad Guy’

cryptocurrency bitcoin mining
Source: Shutterstock

Making her point further, she compares bitcoin mining’s annual power usage of 30 terrawatts to that of the global banking industry, estimated at an average of 100 terrawatts. Even if cryptocurrency mining was to grow a hundredfold, this would still place its share of global energy consumption at just 2 percent.

Kelly-Pitou also points out that cryptocurrency mining is growing in areas known for cheap and abundant renewable electricity such as Oregon in America’s Pacific Northwest, which has vast amounts of hydropower.

China’s Sichuan mountain region, which is sometimes thought of as the global nexus of bitcoin mining, is also a favoured industry destination for the same reason. In Europe, geothermal energy-rich Iceland is also a popular mining destination, meaning that mining in that country functions almost 100 percent on renewable energy.

All of this she says, merely proves that the conversation should be less about whether or not bitcoin uses a lot of electricity and more about the carbon footprint of the electricity in question.

Concluding her argument, she states:

“Like many other aspects of the energy industry, bitcoin is not necessarily a ‘bad guy.’ It’s simply a new, and vaguely understood, industry. The discussion about energy consumption and bitcoin is, I believe, unfair without discussing the energy intensity of new technologies overall, specifically in data centers.”

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