Bitcoin’s Voracious Energy Appetite Could Slow the Off-Fossil Transition
As the value of a single bitcoin surges past US$17,000, it’s becoming increasingly clear that a technology originally intended as a challenge to conventional currency could end up defeating the global transition off fossil fuels.
Though bitcoin still has a small number of users and is widely seen more as a curiosity than an alternative to regular money, the computing power required to run transactions already consumes an estimated 31 terawatt-hours of electricity per year—more than the annual energy use of 150 individual countries around the world. “And that power-hungry network is currently increasing its energy use every day by about 450 gigawatt-hours, roughly the same amount of electricity the entire country of Haiti uses in a year,” meteorologist and climate hawk Eric Holthaus writes on Grist.
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“The tremendous growth of cryptocurrencies has created an exponential demand for computing power,” he explains. “As bitcoin grows, the math problems computers must solve to make more bitcoin (a process called ‘mining’) get more and more difficult,” requiring more and more capacity. That means “each bitcoin transaction requires the same amount of energy used to power nine homes in the U.S. for one day.” Even at this early stage in bitcoin’s development, “the aggregate computing power of the bitcoin network is nearly 100,000 times larger than the world’s 500 fastest supercomputers combined.”
That means it’ll take just a few months for bitcoin to outrun the electricity supply available to run transactions and begin creating its own demand for new power plants. “By July 2019, the bitcoin network will require more electricity than the entire United States currently uses,” Holthaus writes. “By February 2020, it will use as much electricity as the entire world does today. This is an unsustainable trajectory. It simply can’t continue.”
While efforts are under way to reform bitcoin’s approach to transaction processing, Holthaus worries those improvements will just draw new users and drive up demand. “Given its rapidly growing climate footprint,” he warns, “bitcoin is a malignant development, and it’s getting worse.”