Environmental Consequences of Bitcoin

(view more articles in SOS Tompkins Weekly)

Tompkins Weekly 6-23-21

By Yvonne Taylor

Bitcoin, or proof of work cryptocurrency, may seem like some distant, data mumbo jumbo that has little impact on those of us living in the Finger Lakes, but we must learn about this issue and act like our very planet depends on what happens with this industry because it does.

What is Bitcoin? Simply put, it’s a form of cryptocurrency that is created as many machines all work to solve the same mathematical equation or puzzle. The first machine to solve the problem wins. The more machines you have working on the same puzzle, the greater the chances you have of profiting.

Here’s the problem: big cryptomining companies like Bitcoin are buying up old or mothballed, inefficient fossil fuel power plants in the Finger Lakes and around New York state and reviving them to fuel their round-the-clock Bitcoin mining machines.

Some forms of cryptocurrency, like Bitcoin mining, are extremely energy intensive. It can use the same amount of energy as entire countries like Argentina. Parts of China and India are considering banning Bitcoin because it is hampering their climate goals and taking power away from the public to use for private Bitcoin operations.

Yvonne Taylor. Photo provided.

Cryptocurrency mining energy use has risen 320% in the past five years. A 2018 study published in Nature found that the number of computers used to mine Bitcoin could single-handedly produce enough greenhouse gases to raise global temperatures above the 2-degree Celsius tipping point in less than three decades.

Everything we do or plan to do about climate change will be undermined by growing cryptocurrency mining operations unless we address this industry.

Climate change threatens the health, welfare and economy of the state with increasingly severe and widespread impacts to our communities due to flooding, sea level rise, heat waves, coastal erosion, erratic and unpredictable weather patterns, shifting climatic zones, loss of biodiversity, increased harmful algal blooms and invasive species, and increased risk of disease.

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants to lead on climate, he has to address the impacts of the proof of work cryptocurrency mining industry in New York.

The Greenidge Generation facility along the shores of Seneca Lake in the heart of the Finger Lakes is the test case for Bitcoin in New York. This once mothballed coal-fired plant sat dormant for seven years before it was repurposed to burn natural gas to supply power to the grid in times of high demand.

Finding that unprofitable, the owners installed 7,900 Bitcoin machines. This increased their air emissions tenfold. Now, their plan is to expand 25-fold, using at least 500 megawatts of power along Seneca and elsewhere by 2025.

At full capacity, renowned environmental law firm Earthjustice projects that Greenidge will emit over 1 million tons of CO2 equivalents every year.

Greenidge is not an outlier; it is a new business model that Bitcoin investors are eager to replicate. Bitcoin operators search for areas with cheap power sources or power plants that are not operating at full capacity to install Bitcoin mining machines.

In a letter sent to Cuomo’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC), the environmental law firm Earthjustice and the Atlantic Chapter of the Sierra Club warned that nearly 30 other upstate New York power plants could be converted to run full-time as data centers, with catastrophic consequences for statewide CO2-equivalent emissions.

New York is on the brink of allowing this new, unregulated mining of cryptocurrency to derail the tremendous progress of the Finger Lakes’ burgeoning agriculture, tourism and wine industry in New York state. The air particulates from a power plant like Greenidge are not only harmful to human health but also to crops.

Yates County, where Greenidge is located, is one of New York’s largest agricultural counties. In large part, the Finger Lakes is the breadbasket of the state. We cannot afford to jeopardize our rich agricultural lands and food sources, especially for an industry that does not serve the public.

Buying up old power plants to generate power for private use, thus operating “behind the meter” (by not supplying power to the grid for public consumption), Bitcoin miners are able to evade New York’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act requirement, which stipulates that 70% of our grid’s electricity must come from renewable sources by 2030.

In addition, power plants use more water than any other industry. Greenidge’s facility on Seneca Lake is permitted by the DEC to withdraw 139 million gallons of our drinking water every day and then discharge it back at temperatures up to 108 degrees via a trout stream that feeds directly back into the lake.

We know that warmer temperatures contribute to harmful algal blooms, which are toxic to both humans and animals, and a problem we’re already facing in the region. This thermal pollution won’t help. In a time of growing water contamination and water scarcity, this aspect cannot be overlooked.

The plant’s water intake structure was required to install wedge wire screens to protect fish from getting killed, but those screens have yet to be installed.

Cryptocurrency mining is not a job creator as the machines are fully automated. At risk, however, are the jobs that rely on clean air and water, like farms, wineries and other tourism-related occupations. In the Finger Lakes region, the agritourism industry generates over $3 billion for New York state annually and supports 58,000 jobs.

No one is immune to the impacts of climate change. Repowering or expanding coal or gas plants to burn more fossil fuels in the middle of a climate crisis to make fake money is literally insane.

Communities throughout New York can expect to face this growing industry in a series of town-by-town fights unless we can get regulations in place. We must hold Cuomo accountable for his commitment to make our state a leader on climate change. Here are some immediate things you can do.

Ask your state legislators to support legislation that would place a moratorium on any new or expanding Bitcoin operations in the state of New York until a comprehensive study of the industry and its impacts on air, water, human health and agriculture can be fully evaluated.

Call Cuomo at (518) 474-8390. Tell him that unregulated, “behind the meter’’ Bitcoin operations completely evade his Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act (CLCPA) and that he must direct his DEC to deny Greenidge’s Title V air permit renewal.

Yvonne Taylor is the vice president of Seneca Lake Guardian, a nonprofit dedicated to preserving and protecting the health of the Finger Lakes, its residents and visitors, its rural community character, and its agricultural and tourist-related businesses.

If you liked this article, you may want to check out our complete archives of SOS Tompkins Weekly articles