Developing renewable energies to replace fossil fuels is a good thing. Developing them to increase the global consumption, especially for frivolous and inefficient usages, is not.
Bitcoin’s energy usage skyrockets along with its price, burning currently around 130 TWh / year (as much as Argentina) and is expected to double again in the coming months, reaching the power of whole Australia … for processing only 0.02% of all digital transactions.
We recently demonstrated, by crunching the data from recent studies, that contrary to what the bitcoin industry says, bitcoin runs mostly on fossil fuels, with an average carbon footprint of electricity of 830g / kWh, worse than the US mix.
In this article, we discuss why, even running 100% on renewables, Bitcoin would still be an environmental disaster.
Table of content
1) Hardware : Bitcoin mining is basically dirty metal mining
2) There is no clean / green energy
3) The goal is *not* to develop renewables per se
4) Bitcoin is *not* a battery
5) Inefficient systems cannot be eco-friendly
When we mention the impacts of bitcoin, we often talk only about the energy consumption only, forgetting the impact of the hardware. Bitcoin mining is done on custom devices (ASIC), designed specifically to process hashes, and absolutely unable to do anything else useful. Those devices evolve very rapidly and are obsolete every 1.5 years on average.
Digiconomist estimates that around 12 000 tons of those ASIC are produced / thrown away each year. Most of it is made of metals (aluminum, copper, iron, rare metals, …) this represents 4 times the amount of gold mined each year, with similar ecological impacts : Bitcoin mining is basically metal mining + a gigantic waste of energy.
A recent study shows that the demand for this specific hardware, following the recent rise of Bitcoin’s price is so important that it plays a significant role in the current worldwide shortage of electronic components, slowing down the transition (for EVs especially).
Moving bitcoin energy to 100% renewable will not fix this.
Supporters of Bitcoin also claim that the gigantic consumption is somehow good on the long run, because it will help to develop “renewable energies”. This argument is like saying Marlboro is good for health because causing cancer helps to finance research on cancer.
But let’s dig into this a bit more :
First, there is no green or clean energy. Renewables have a less (but not null) carbon footprint but they require (a lot !) of materials (metal, cement, …) which are finite and very polluting to extract / transform. They also occupy a lot of land (which is finite and habitat for the wild).
Climate change is not the only major issue humanity is facing. We are also running out of resources (some metals, sand, oil, ..) and we already triggered the 6th extinction of species in the history of earth, mainly by destroying their habitat. If you think drowning entire valleys to produce electricity is clean or ecological, think again.
The transition toward renewables is so intensive in metals that the demand of metals is growing exponentially, causing major issues on supply and pollution from mining.
In physics, the energy usage measures the irreversible transformations we do to the world. We do that at a pace that the ecosystem cannot stand. The earth cannot handle the carbon we reject in the atmosphere, nor clean the soils and water we spoil or produce again the resources we extract (sand, metals, oil, …).
The more we use energy, the more we extract, transform and throw wastes (in air, soils, …) : we produce entropy, and physics tell us it cannot be otherwise. We cannot increase the production / consumption of the economy while reducing our global footprint : this is a lie.
There is a widely spread misconception that developing renewables is an ecological goal in itself. This is wrong. The goal is too reduce our global footprint (CO2 but not only, as shown above).
If you double the global energy consumption with 90% renewable, the global share of renewables will increase, but the net footprint will increase : the overall balance sheet is bad.
Developing renewable energies as a replacement for fossil fuels is a good thing. Developing renewables to increase the global consumption, especially for frivolous usages, is not.
In a world where the demand for energy increases, there is no transition: energy sources do not replace each other, they add to each other. In order to reduce our overall footprint, we have no choice but to stabilize / reduce our energy consumption and to switch to less polluting sources.
Currently, the development of renewable energies can barely compensate for the growth in demand. Bitcoin makes it even worse.
We also hear often that bitcoin may help the development of renewables by “storing” surplus from renewables in bitcoin. First, we seen above that we don’t need to develop renewables per se. Also, this claim is a total nonsense physically. It ignores everything about the reality of energy networks and renewables.
For any electric grid, the production needs to match exactly the demand, at any time. Renewables are intermittent energy sources : we cannot control when the sun shines or the wind blows.
When the production of renewable sources is lower than the demand, we need to complete it with controllable power units : mostly fossil fuels. This worsen the carbon footprint of the full grid.
As the part of renewables in electric mixes rises, we need to smooth the production to match the demand without rising the need for fossil fuels. We do this by storing energy (STEPs, batteries, heat, hydrogen).
Bit mining competes directly with real/physical storage solutions. It incentivizes burning extra energy instead of storing it for days to come. Unlike physical storage, you can’t convert bitcoins back into energy when you need it later: the network will need the help of fossil fuels, making the overall carbon footprint much worse.
Bitcoin is vastly less efficient than the current system (FIAT, Gold) or than other crypto currencies, offering similar or better properties (decentralized consensus, no fees, speed) with different mechanisms (proof of sake, web of trust, …)
The development of Bitcoin is typical of the way of thinking that has led to the crises we are experiencing. At the time of global climate change and global environmental crisis, we can’t afford anymore to design systems without taking into accounts the physical limits of our environment.
Switching inefficient systems to renewable energy will not work. We need to design systems (transportation, IT, urban planning, …) with energy, resource use and pollution in mind from the start.
Anything else is green washing. It is worse than the statue-quo, as it gives us the impression we’re going to the right direction, when in fact we are just making it worse.
As such, Bitcoin (or any cryptocurrency based on PoW) is an outdated technology, belonging to the past, and should be fought with strength.