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How much energy does bitcoin mining really use? It’s complicated Bitcoin hype has reached an all-time high. But if running the bitcoin network uses up as much yearly electricity as a medium-sized country, is it worth it? Bitcoin chews through masses of energy, but exactly how much is up for debate. Regardless of the actual number, it’s climbing — so is the environmental cost of the digital currency becoming too high?
This being bitcoin, the numbers are confusing and largely made up. Power consumption is one of the major costs of bitcoin mining, as dedicated machines crunch the algorithms that build a record of every single bitcoin transaction and are rewarded with tiny fractions of a bitcoin for their efforts. As mining gets more difficult, it requires increasingly powerful hardware to be competitive. That evolution, as well as the global spread of miners, makes it difficult to assess exactly how much energy is spent on the digital checks that underpin bitcoin, but there are plenty of people trying to get a handle on just how much power it’s chewing through. Regardless of whether bitcoin is a bubble or not, we’re investing heavily in infrastructure and burning through huge amounts of energy. If this is going to be a viable alternative financial system, it needs to be financially and environmentally sustainable. And if it never has a chance of being truly useful, and is just a get rich quick scheme, are we destroying the climate for something totally trivial?
10,000, even a fraction of a bitcoin is no longer a trivial amount of money. No matter how lucrative, is a currency experiment worth churning through oodles of energy for? It’s nigh on impossible to know exactly how much energy is being used, but cryptocurrency tracking site Digiconomist is the source of one oft-cited estimate. According to its Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index, the network of computers that verify bitcoin transactions draw 3.
There are other figures, if those don’t appeal. In 2014 a pair of Irish researchers published one of the first papers on this topic. Malone now pegs it at around 0. There are plenty of other estimates, but the key point is they’re all very different. The real range is probably somewhere between 100MW to 3. When you make your guess skews the figures, because the bitcoin network changes so quickly — there’s always more activity and more processing power, but it’s somewhat balanced by more efficient hardware.
As he explained to WIRED, his numbers are for January of this year and since then the network hash rate — a measure of the bitcoin network’s processing power, looking at how quickly it solves the equations that run the network — has leapt by a factor of 4. 8 billion — a factor of 11. Feed those factors into Vranken’s equation and bitcoin’s energy draw is between 5GW and 7GW. So while those two figures look different, they’re roughly the same.