On Aug. 9, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a new report that is a “code red for humanity,” the final and loudest alarm bell to ring before we pass over the precipice of irrevocable damage to the only home we have. The scientific consensus is clear: Nations and companies around the world must break addictions to dirty fossil fuels and instead transition to clean, renewable sources of energy.
Why, then, are companies across the United States — and even right here in Pennsylvania — gobbling up unprofitable fossil fuel power plants, extending their shelf-lives and, in the process, their enormous carbon footprints? It’s being done all in the name of cryptocurrency.
You read that correctly. In a time of irrefutable evidence that human-made climate change is destroying the planet, new age prospectors and entrepreneurs are significantly adding to our carbon footprint by using dirty energy to “mine” bitcoin, which is a digital currency with very real ramifications.
First, an explanation: Bitcoin, created in 2009, is a cryptocurrency that is the most popular type of digital currency in use. Bitcoin miners use hundreds, if not thousands, of special-purpose computers that work around-the-clock to solve complex math problems— a situation akin to trying to pick correct lottery numbers, but much more difficult —often taking trillions of attempts. If successful in cracking the puzzle, a user is awarded almost $300,000 worth of bitcoin, according to current prices.
The problem is that the computers used in bitcoin mining worldwide devour enormous amounts of electricity, more than countries like Argentina and Sweden, and dirty fossil fuels like coal and gas are often used to create that electricity. The process has received intense criticism from people like tech mogul Elon Musk, who said in May his company would stop accepting bitcoin because of concerns over the carbon footprint involved in mining.
This might seem like a dense, complicated process that has few, if any, consequences for Pennsylvania, but bitcoin miners are already active here and have plans to rapidly scale up operations.
To that end, a company called Stronghold Digital Mining already owns a waste coal power plant in Venango County in western Pennsylvania, and has plans to buy two other waste coal facilities in Pennsylvania. There are about a dozen other waste coal facilities scattered across Pennsylvania that could also be repurposed for cryptocurrency mining if this trend continues.
The plant in Venango County uses waste coal to power nearly 2,000 computers that mine bitcoin, and Stronghold has plans to add thousands more computers. But at what cost to our environment? According to data from the Environmental Protection Agency, in 2019 the Scrubgrass plant emitted more than 405,000 tons of carbon dioxide, the equivalent of about 88,000 cars driving for one year.
The pollution associated with these plants is bad enough. What’s worse is that bitcoin miners are able to use these old, dirty, polluting coal plants to power their operations because we — the taxpayers — are heavily subsidizing them. Coal waste is classified by Pennsylvania as a Tier II alternative energy resource under the Alternative Energy Portfolio Standard, meaning bitcoin miners like Stronghold are able to earn alternative energy credits paid for by consumers.
In other words, Pennsylvania is subsidizing bitcoin miners to prop up financially failing, heavily polluting coal plants to create digital currency that has little to no economic impact on Pennsylvania communities. What do taxpayers get for those subsidies? In addition to CO2, the Scrubgrass plant’s most recent emissions report shows hundreds of tons of sulfur dioxide, oxides of nitrogen, hydrochloric acid, carbon monoxide, and more than a dozen other air pollutants, including neurotoxins, carcinogens and smog-forming compounds.
Proponents of bitcoin mining in Pennsylvania will claim companies are cleaning up waste coal piles to burn them for electricity and, in the process, clearing the surrounding land that has been impacted by these piles for years. While we need to remediate these waste piles, is the trade-off worth pumping hundreds of thousands of pounds of climate-killing emissions along with carcinogens, neurotoxins, and other pollutants into our atmosphere, at a time when we need exactly the opposite?
The message behind the United Nations report is clear: Humanity is not doing nearly enough, not nearly quick enough, to offset the worst impacts of the climate crisis. Juxtapose that report with current events in Pennsylvania, where filthy waste coal plants are being rejuvenated — not in the name of jobs or economic promise, but in the name of digital currency that likely will pad the pockets of a few investors, at the expense of anyone who cherishes clean air and a livable planet.
Legislation has been introduced in Harrisburg that would establish a “task force” of government officials who would study cryptocurrency and its long-term impacts on our economy. Unfortunately, environmental and health impacts associated with cryptocurrency mining are not currently included within the purview of that task force.
Let’s hope our elected officials do the right thing and examine this issue through its most important lens — the health and well-being of Pennsylvania residents and communities, as well as our planet as a whole.
Rob Altenburg is the senior director for energy and climate at PennFuture, a statewide nonprofit organization with five offices in Pennsylvania.