Bitcoin’s Intensive Energy Demands Are Sparking a Crypto Backlash

The first time Jackie Sawicky learned that a Bitcoin mining operation was coming to Corsicana, a rural Texas city 60 miles south of Dallas, was on April 27, when she happened upon a Facebook video of a meeting at the local public library. The featured speaker was Chad Everett Harris, the upbeat executive vice president of Riot Blockchain, a Bitcoin mining company based in Castle Rock, Colorado. Bald and comfortably plump, Harris wore a suit jacket and open-collared shirt over blue jeans and delivered his message with the verve of a motivational speaker.

“We’re coming to Corsicana to build the largest [Bitcoin mining facility] in the world,” Harris announced, describing the four-building, 400,000 square-foot complex that will occupy 265 acres with number-crunching machines. “We turn energy into opportunity.”

Riot already operates the largest Bitcoin mine in the country in Rockdale, Texas. When someone in the audience asked Harris what drew him to Corsicana, the seat of Navarro County (pronounced “Nah-verr-o” in local parlance), he answered without hesitation. “The Navarro Switch!” he said, referring to part of the 192-mile, 345-kilovolt transmission line that moves power from West Texas to eastern parts of the state, where demand is high. “And water,” he added. “You can pay a lot to bring power somewhere. But you can’t get water.”

“He literally told us,” Sawicky says, “that he was coming to exploit our resources.”

By some estimates, the world’s Bitcoin mining operations had an annual energy budget equal to the nation of Argentina.

To some people, Bitcoin — the most valuable and well-known of the 10,000 or so currently circulating cryptocurrencies — is nothing more than a pyramid scheme; to others, it represents the future of money: decentralized, unregulated, and tracked on a virtual ledger in the digital cloud that everyone can inspect, known as a blockchain. But its production consumes dizzying quantities of electricity. In May of 2022, the world’s sum total of Bitcoin mining operations had an annual energy budget nearly equal to the entire country of Argentina, or the Czech Republic, or, according to Cambridge University’s Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index, all the tea kettles in England boiling water for 26 years.

In warmer climates, cryptocurrency-mining by the Bitcoin method, known as “proof of work,” typically needs water to cool those machines running fast and hot as they play the Bitcoin lottery (Riot says it will use a new technology in Corsicana that reduces water use). Proof-of-work mining is essentially a high-stakes guessing game: Computers spend all day throwing out random 64-digit numbers until one matches the “right” number, as determined by Bitcoin’s consensus-managed protocol. On the world-wide network of Bitcoin servers, “you have 200 quintillion guesses every second of the day nonstop,” explains Alex de Vries, a researcher at the School of Business and Economics at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam. “And even despite that, only one machine gets it right every 10 minutes.”

The correct answer gets logged on Bitcoin’s blockchain, and the winner gets a reward: 6.2 Bitcoins. That’s not as much money as it used to be: In the coin’s current slump, each coin nets about $20,000, down from a high in November 2021 of just under $68,000.

Riot Blockchain's Bitcoin mining facility in Rockdale, Texas under construction in 2021.

Riot Blockchain’s Bitcoin mining facility in Rockdale, Texas under construction in 2021.
Mark Felix / AFP via Getty Images

Due to its high demand for electricity, proof-of-work cryptocurrency mining has not been welcomed in every corner of the world. Miners seek cheap energy to maximize their profits, but their energy-intensive activities typically drive electricity costs up for everyone. Even when mining plants run on renewable energy, critics say, they often exploit existing clean energy resources at the expense of ordinary consumers, who are then forced to buy more expensive, and often dirtier, power.

In Bonner, Montana, a small city in Missoula County, the Bitcoin company HyperBlock set up in 2016 and almost immediately began cutting into the…

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