Published on June 17th, 2019 |
by Tina Casey
June 17th, 2019 by Tina Casey
Everybody knows that the popular cryptocurrency bitcoin has a carbon emissions problem. The question is, how bad is it? Well, it’s nothing that can’t be solved by ramping up the global fleet of nuclear power plants, so what’s the problem? I kid, I kid! Actually it could be a problem.
More Evidence That Bitcoin Has A Carbon Emissions Problem
Bitcoin is a form of cryptocurrency that has off-the-charts electricity consumption baked into its foundational formulation. Researchers have been tracking the growth of carbon emissions related to bitcoin transactions with ever-gloomier results.
The latest piece of the bitcoin carbon emissions puzzle comes from a team of researchers at MIT and the Technical University of Munich.
The team studied the electricity used by the computers that generate bitcoin transactions, and the global carbon emissions involved in that energy use.
Associated Press reporter Frank Jordans got the story last week, and the Intertubes have been buzzing ever since. The estimated equivalent in annual carbon emissions is pretty impressive:
The virtual currency bitcoin is responsible for the same amount of carbon dioxide emissions as a city like Las Vegas or Hamburg and efforts to reduce its climate footprint should be considered, researchers said Thursday.
Yikes! That sure complicates the global race for a low-carbon economy.
Good News For “Clean Power” Fans
Accelerating the global transition out of fossil-fueled power plants is challenging enough as it is. Adding the equivalent of a large city to the global energy load every year is not exactly helpful.
That’s where the nuclear energy angle comes in. With the threat of a catastrophic climate crisis looming, all energy stakeholders are jockeying to hold the title of clean power champion. That doesn’t help a whole lot for coal, which is just barely clinging to the “clean coal” pretext.
Natural gas stakeholders are also beginning to lose their grip. They are still pushing the “cleaner fuel” angle, but that thing about methane emissions is pushing back (among other environmental issues).
That leaves nuclear power with a zero-emission case to bring before the public, and boy howdy are they bringing it.
To cite just a couple of examples, Bill Gates hijacked the media spotlight in the runup to the 2015 Paris Agreement on climate change with the splashy launch of the Breakthrough Coalition and its affiliated Breakthrough Energy Ventures investor group. Though the group has renewables in its sights, it also supports the carbon emissions mission of Gates’s nuclear power company, TerraPower.
Michael Bloomberg’s newly launched Beyond Carbon campaign leaves plenty of wiggle room for nuclear power, too.
The Global Carbon Emissions Race, Nuclear Style
The nuclear industry does not have much room to stretch its power generation limbs here in the US. Aside from unresolved environmental risks and lifecycle costs, the nuclear industry faces a brain drain as the nation’s steamroller of a renewable energy sector siphons off the next generation of innovators.
It’s a different story elsewhere around the globe. One nuclear hotspot is China, which is already adding 15 nuclear power reactors to its current fleet of 45, with more on the way, all in the cause of cutting carbon emissions from its coal power plants. India is also reaching out for the nuclear brass ring.
Probably not by coincidence, the MIT-Munich team found that the vast majority — 68% — of computing power used in bitcoin mining occurs in Asia. Europe is far behind at 17% and North America slides in at 15%.
That could explain why Gates tapped China to host the first trial of his next-gen nuclear technology, though earlier this year the project stalled. Gates blames the Trump* Administration’s China policy because why not.
Meanwhile, US nuclear stakeholders are counting on other emerging markets to support their growth.
Saudi Arabia is one of those markets. Despite the grisly murder of US resident Jamal Khashoggi last fall, the Trump* Administration has moved forward with the sale of nuclear technology to the Saudi Kingdom. According to recent reports, the Kingdom plans to start construction on a pair of nuclear reactors next year.
Not All Cryptocurrencies Are Created Equal
Bitcoin is just one among many cryptocurrencies floating around out there, and some of them are helping to solve the carbon emissions problem instead of adding to it.
As a digital token for renewable energy transactions, crypto provides renewable energy producers and consumers with a low cost, seamless, and trustworthy portal for selling, buying, trading, and sharing clean kilowatts.
Also, speaking of MIT, earlier this year a team of researchers at the school announced a new cryptocurrency platform that reportedly provides the transparency and security benefits of bitcoin with a fraction of the data usage.
So far the team has demonstrated that the new system, called Vault, reduces the bandwith required to join its network by 99% compared to Bitcoin. The team also compared Vault to another popular cryptocurrency platform, Ethereum, and came up with a 90% reduction.
Speaking of nuclear energy and the resources required to mine for bitcoin, there’s an environmental justice angle floating around out there. If you have any thoughts about that, drop us a note in the comment thread. Hint: Who is in a position to benefit the most from bitcoin mining, and who is waking up to find a new nuclear power plant planted in their backyard?
Meanwhile, CleanTechnica is reaching out to the Union of Concerned Scientists for some insights on the interplay between bitcoin mining and environmental justice, so stay tuned for more on that.
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Photo (cropped) Vogtle nuclear power plant via US Department of Energy.