Mining Bitcoin is like driving 5.8 million cars

There are several problems with Bitcoin, but for a minute let’s just look at the real-world environmental cost of all that digital wealth. Other people have written about this in the recent past, but energy consumption from Bitcoin mining is growing so rapidly that it’s worth updating the numbers.

According to Blockchain, over the last 24 hours Bitcoin miners used an estimated 135,950.77 megawatt hours of electricity.

(SEE UPDATE BELOW)

The US Environmental Protection Agency estimates that every megawatt hour delivered in that country generates 1,307.2 lbs of carbon dioxide, or 593 kilos. That’s based on an energy mix that includes 37% coal, 30% gas, and 19% nuclear. Mind you, if your computers are running in China, where the grid relies more heavily on coal, this consultancy estimates a carbon cost of 960 kilos per megawatt hour.

As a conservative estimate, let’s round it off and say bitcoin mining generates 600 kilos of CO2 per MWh.

That means in the last 24 hours alone, Bitcoin miners have added 81,570 metric tons of CO2 to the atmosphere.

Again, going back to the EPA’s estimates, the average passenger vehicle in the US generates 5.1 metric tons of CO2 every year, or 13.97 kilos a day.

That means in the last 24 hours, bitcoin mining operations generated as much CO2 as 5,838,940 passenger vehicles.

And that’s just the CO2 emissions — we’re not counting the environmental or social impacts of real-world mining, which is where all that gas and coal and uranium comes from.

As the equations required to generate new Bitcoins become necessarily more complex, these real-world costs will only continue to rise. Not that I expect the people doing the mining to care. They burned $20 million worth of electricity in the last 24 hours for total commissions worth $3.6 million. Clearly that’s not where they make their money.

Here’s what I see: A few speculators getting rich off a currency bubble, at the expense of public energy providers and the rest of us who are trying to mitigate and adapt to climate change. Is that really the future?

UPDATE: Okay, I’ve clearly wandered down a rabbit hole with this Bitcoin post. I believe my original point stands, but first I have to address some questions of methodology. 

It’s been brought to my attention on Twitter that the energy use estimates on Blockchain.info are based on the assumption that computers tasked with mining are using traditional processors. However, this fall a series of mining-specific ASIC chips hit the market, delivering up to 10 times more energy efficiency.

The release of that new hardware has coincided with a sharp increase in the number of calculations being performed across the network, as illustrated by this chart. It seems fair to say that much of this new activity is happening on more efficient hardware. I haven’t yet found an accurate estimate of how many people use the new chips and what the overall network efficiency would be.

Another wrinkle: Police in Germany arrested three suspects earlier this month on fraud charges. They’re accused of using malware to, in effect, enslave unsuspecting peoples’ computers to mine bitcoin for the benefit of the hackers. I doubt the victims have ASIC chips in their PCs. And you can also participate in this kind of outsourced mining voluntarily, again with a regular computer. So a certain proportion of overall calculations are being done by ordinary internet users, whether willing or unwilling. Again, I don’t have an accurate estimate.

It looks like the complexity of Bitcoin verification will increase, and at the same time so will hardware efficiency. Clearly there’s an arms race underway.

The reason I created this post is to point out that wealth accumulation of any kind requires that you submit to a formula that creates certain externalities. That’s true of the existing global financial system, and it’s true of online currencies. For now, the “value” of Bitcoin does not take into account the real-world consequences of digging coal out of the ground and burning it. The question is, can that continue forever?

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18 comments
  1. Stephen said:

    Does nobody check their facts anymore?

    Blockchain.info’s calc is obsolete because it presumes GPUs are how mining occurs. An accurate computation shows electrical consumption of all mining today at about $25K USD per day — not $20 million.

  2. Frank said:

    This article is the result of… or a feeble attempt at… brainwashing. It is the same bogus science used by the “man made global warming” oh no… I mean “man made climate change” crowd. It is all BS in an attempt to establish a new world order, one world government dictatorship. And gullible ignoramus’ like this auther buy right into it.

    • I’d be happy to lend you my tinfoil helmet.

      • Cameron said:

        Hah, it sucks sharing the internet with these trolls. I liked the article Kai. I was in fact thinking about this issue last night. The numbers are tricky to pin down, but regardless, there is a complete waste of natural resources because of this speculation. =[

  3. Good if it creates CO2! The Earth is in a major cooling period… we need more CO2! 😛

    • Reminds me of the “plant food” argument of which fossil fuel lobbyists are so fond!

  4. Erik said:

    That reminds me, I should check on how my bitcoin investment is doing… Shit not good

  5. Matt said:

    Regardless how efficient they can make the process, to quote Drucker the mgmt guru “there is nothing more inefficient than doing something efficiently that doesn’t need to be done at all”

    A democratically, well balanced government (not the current versions) that issues it’s own currency with a floating exchange is the best possible scenario. Check out modern monetary theory to see why. http://www.modernmoneynetwork.org/

  6. Juan said:

    Dude, just pull this post. There’s way too much wrong with it. The vague handwaving trying to generate fear and contempt for the rich and exclusive or whatever you’re trying to do — it’s not working. Your facts are wrong and Bitcoin is going in the opposite direction of everything you’re trying to imply.

    • Wealth never comes from nowhere. No fear, no contempt.

      • Juan said:

        “Wealth never comes from nowhere.” — I’ve read that sentence 5 times and I don’t understand it. Maybe you’d like to explain it? If you’re trying to imply that something of value never springs out of nothing, you’re completely wrong and I can think of so many examples I wouldn’t know where to start.

        Well, here’s one to get things going: the domain name kaingata.com — was completely worthless before it existed and you registered it. Now it’s got readership and is “monetizable” — hence, worth something. Out of nothing.

        • If my name has any value as a domain, which in my opinion is minimal, it’s a result of work. Which requires calories. Speaking of which, it’s time for dinner!

          • Juan said:

            By that definition, there’s nothing you can do that DOESN’T create value of some sort… everything that prevents the natural flow of entropy in the universe must be creating something of value. Which is nonsense, of course. And minimal is not the same as zero, anyway.

  7. A more realistic number for tons of CO2 produced by Bitcoin per year is 394,200. The network is overwhelmingly ASIC, and 64 kW is typical for 10 TH/s of capacity, and that puts power utilization at around 65 MW total. Obviously, there’s tons of flaws in my assumptions here, but this is likely well within an order of magnitude of the correct number.

  8. Hey Kai. Environmentalists and Bitcoin enthusiasts aren’t a mutually exclusive group, and I wish you hadn’t framed it as such. As someone who’s both, here’s how I see it. Advocates for the environment and for Bitcoin want to disrupt the same thing, the way we’re currently running the economy. They may not always agree on how to do it, but that doesn’t mean there can’t be a big overlap between the two Venn diagrams. New technologies are what we make of it, and people in the environmental movement could easily appropriate Bitcoin to its advantage.

    The solution to Bitcoin’s CO2 issue isn’t to stop mining bitcoins, it’s to get that many cars off the road or to offset it via other means by giving back, whether environmentally or socially. Using the Internet has a huge environmental footprint, never mind if you factor in all the infrastructure that we need to make, buy, and transport just to use it:

    http://www.treehugger.com/gadgets/what-is-the-environmental-impact-of-the-internet.html

    But it’s not like we should stop using the Internet because of this. Instead, we should use it to do the kind of work and make the kind of connections that can have bigger impacts and negate the damage we do. Same with Bitcoin, hopefully. The Bitcoin community would wholeheartedly rally around the first environmental organization to accept donations in bitcoins. At a small event at SFU of 60 people that I spoke at a month ago, we raised $1400 for Schools Building Schools on the spot in bitcoin donations during our 10-minute live fundraiser, with $500 of that as a matched donation from the founder of the Bitcoin Co-op. We chose them as our partner charity because the founder and president was willing to accept donations in bitcoin.

    As you’ve said, early Bitcoin advocates and the later speculators are a newly wealthy bunch with a lot of money to spend. Just like you, we hate monopolies, bad bureaucracy, corporate wealth, and want to be engaged in our communities and are pretty much just waiting to be tapped into. If you know of an anti-Enbridge organization that is willing to try accepting bitcoins, do let me know and we can work something out.

    -Esther

  9. i have a feeling that will accept btc, on that way bitcoin price will change a lot. It should and the Ebay integrate the bitcoin as a payment method. In this way while big e-commerce companies include this payment method the price of bitcoin will increase and people will be more interested to invest in bitcoin.

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