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How Bitcoin's vast energy use could burst its bubble
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- Why does Bitcoin need energy at all??
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Every miner in the network is constantly tasked with preparing the next batch of transactions for the blockchain. Only one of these blocks will be randomly selected to become the latest block on the chain. In proof-of-work, the next block comes from the first miner that produces a valid one.
This is easier said than done, as the Bitcoin protocol makes it very difficult for miners to do so. In fact, the difficulty is regularly adjusted by the protocol to ensure that all miners in the network will only produce one valid block every 10 minutes on average. Once one of the miners finally manages to produce a valid block, it will inform the rest of the network.
Other miners will accept this block once they confirm it adheres to all rules, and then discard whatever block they had been working on themselves. The lucky miner gets rewarded with a fixed amount of coins, along with the transaction fees belonging to the processed transactions in the new block. The cycle then starts again. For this reason, mining is sometimes compared to a lottery where you can pick your own numbers. This will typically be expressed in Gigahash per second 1 billion hashes per second.
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The continuous block mining cycle incentivizes people all over the world to mine Bitcoin. As mining can provide a solid stream of revenue, people are very willing to run power-hungry machines to get a piece of it. Over the years this has caused the total energy consumption of the Bitcoin network to grow to epic proportions, as the price of the currency reached new highs.
The entire Bitcoin network now consumes more energy than a number of countries. If Bitcoin was a country, it would rank as shown below. The result is shown hereafter. Thinking about how to reduce CO2 emissions from a widespread Bitcoin implementation.
Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index
Determining the exact carbon impact of the Bitcoin network has been a challenge for years. Not only does one need to know the power requirement of the Bitcoin network, but one also need to know where this power is coming from.
The location of miners is a key ingredient to know how dirty or how clean the power is that they are using. Initially the only information available to this end was the common belief that the majority of miners were located in China. Since we know the average emission factor of the Chinese grid around grams of carbon dioxide equivalent per kilowatt-hour , this can be used for a very rough approximation of the carbon intensity of the power used for Bitcoin mining. This number can subsequently be applied to a power consumption estimate of the Bitcoin network to determine its carbon footprint.
In this study, they identified facilities representing roughly half of the entire Bitcoin hash rate, with a total lower bound consumption of megawatts.
Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index - Digiconomist
Chinese mining facilities were responsible for about half of this, with a lower bound consumption of megawatts. The table below features a breakdown of the energy consumption of the mining facilities surveyed by Hileman and Rauchs.
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- Why does Bitcoin need more energy than whole countries??
This number is currently applied to determine the carbon footprint of the Bitcoin network based on the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index. One can argue that specific locations in the listed countries may offer less carbon intense power. In Bitcoin company Coinshares suggested that the majority of Chinese mining facilities were located in Sichuan province, using cheap hydropower for mining Bitcoin. The main challenge here is that the production of hydropower or renewable energy in general is far from constant.
In Sichuan specifically the average power generation capacity during the wet season is three times that of the dry season. Because of these fluctuations in hydroelectricity generation, Bitcoin miners can only make use of cheap hydropower for a limited amount of time. Using a similar approach, Cambridge in provided a more detailed insight into the localization of Bitcoin miners over time.
Charting this data, and adding colors based on the carbon intensity of the respective power grids, we can reveal significant mining activity in highly polluting regions of the world during the Chinese dry season as shown below. On an annual basis, the average contribution of renewable energy sources therefore remains low.
It is important to realize that, while renewables are an intermittent source of energy, Bitcoin miners have a constant energy requirement. A Bitcoin ASIC miner will, once turned on, not be switched off until it either breaks down or becomes unable to mine Bitcoin at a profit. Because of this, Bitcoin miners increase the baseload demand on a grid. In the latter case Bitcoin miners have historically ended up using fossil fuel based power which is generally a more steady source of energy. With climate change pushing the volatility of hydropower production in places like Sichuan, this is unlikely to get any better in the future.
To put the energy consumed by the Bitcoin network into perspective we can compare it to another payment system like VISA for example. According to VISA, the company consumed a total amount of , Gigajoules of energy from various sources globally for all its operations.