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Bitcoin could cost us our clean-energy future (grist.org)
44 points by cardamomo 10 months ago | hide | past | web | favorite | 73 comments

I wonder how many people defending bitcoin here are _aren't_ bitcoin holders. I suspect very few, as I suspect that if you're holding an asset that's appreciated 1000% in the last year you're going to have a hard time being very objective about any criticism that seems to undermine that asset.

The amount of power bitcoin is sucking up is truly astounding. There will eventually come a point where states are motivated to act against the network, and I'd consider it wishful thinking on the part of bitcoin investors/true believers that states have no real recourse. All that power comes from very large physical sources, which can be controlled with violence. Short of that, China could nationalize the miners and run a 51% attack, driving the price to zero. TLA's have sufficient resources to deanonymize transactions and enforce civil or criminal penalties.

People keep viewing bitcoin as this abstract cryptographic thing, but it exists in the physical world, and in this world sovereign states hold ultimate power. When major powers decide that bitcoin is not in their interest, they will end the experiment. The truest believers will be left holding the bag.

«is truly astounding»

Would you say that the worldwide electricity consumption of Christmas decorative lights (2.3 GW assuming it's 3× the US) is "astounding"? Well, Bitcoin miners consume less than that: I estimate 1.7 GW based on my previous research bounding it to 0.6-1.2 GW as of July.


Why do miners receive such a disproportionate amount of criticism considering that so many other energy uses are vastly more wasteful by multiple orders of magnitudes... Cars alone waste 95% of their fuel energy. The US wastes 61-86% of its energy: https://cleantechnica.com/2013/08/26/us-wastes-61-86-of-its-... But, no, the average HN reader seems more concerned by these miners using 0.01% of the world's energy.

In the future, we may eventually reach a point where the energy use starts becoming worrying, but we are currently very far from that point.

Cryptocurrencies consume a miniscule fraction of the energy that the legacy financial system wastes on office buildings, data centers, air travel and commuting employees.

Why doesn't anyone complain that JPMorgan will "cost us our clean-energy future"?

The great thing about a financial system defined by open-source software is that true innovation happens every day. Already we see testing with proof-of-stake, lightning network, etc. that are vastly more energy efficient.

I have no problem energy increasing in price if people think it is an issue. It will have little effect on the architecture of bitcoin. If anything, it will benefit it by increasing decentralization.

Cryptocurrencies are one of those cats which have gotten out of the bag, and now it is very difficult for it to be put back in.

> Short of that, China could nationalize the miners and run a 51% attack, driving the price to zero.

A hard fork which renders nearly all existing ASIC architecture useless can defeat that attack. It would be a huge cost to China, with all that mining infrastructure go to waste.

What China could do better is to disable bitcoin traffic to pass through their firewall, and that would be a better attack, because then it would be chaos in the rest of the world, with really high difficulty level, which would take time to readjust because no new blocks would be mind for a while.

Then when difficultly readjust, they open the firewall again, and now you got all these China vs non-China btc transactions to consolidate.

This is a big concern of bitcoiners, and there are attempts to figure that out, but it isn't an impossible problem.

Keep in mind, Bitcoin isn't the only cryptocurrency, PoW isn't the only consensus algorithm, the current snapshot of the chain isn't immutable. In case of catastrophic disruption, the chain will be forked, that disruption removed, and business will continue.

> When major powers decide that bitcoin is not in their interest, they will end the experiment.

This is an issue for prisoner's dilemma. Major powers aren't a monolithic entity. The interests of Russia are vastly different from the interests of USA.

A LOT of world powers are interested in getting off Dollar as a reserve currency. This alone makes any decision on bitcoin between the world powers far from agreeable.

Bitcoin's energy usage is getting a lot of press of late. Deservedly, I think - it is a bit ludicrous. None of the articles I've seen really manage to get at the economics of mining, or what's likely to happen in the future, though. A Big Think article projected that by 2020, at the current growth rate, Bitcoin will use as much power as is generated globally today. Obviously that's not going to happen, something will give and that something is likely to be Bitcoin's price.

But even though the articles I've seen are pretty fluffy, they probably stem from an underlying issue that makes Bitcoin different from traditional, energy-heavy industry: The value produced is not directly connected to the energy expended in production. Bitcoin would work just as well with a small fraction of the hashpower it has today. Security is an issue, but surely it must be over-secured many times over at the moment.

Unfortunately no mechanism seems to exist to balance security vs cost, except for the crash-boom market cycle Bitcoin constantly goes through. How much hashpower is needed? The question is moot as there is no way to moderate it, and I'm starting to think that may be Bitcoin's biggest design flaw. (Market forces will certainly bring the energy cost of mining down one way or the other, but it's not clear how much damage will be done to Bitcoin in the process.)

You can't really extrapolate the current growth rate. There is a maximum total mining revenue even if Bitcoin becomes the only globally used currency. The electricity usage likely won't exceed this unless miners begin to sell heat and displace traditional heat generation sources.

"There is a maximum total mining revenue even if Bitcoin becomes the only globally used currency.".

How are you coming to this conclusion? In addition to the coinbase, miners earn fees, which are valued according to current market conditions (supply and demand)

At current growth rate Bitcoins will each be worth over $1M by 2018. This would imply being worth 3x all of the gold ever mined.


If Bitcoin becomes the most valuable asset class in the world by two orders of magnitude (in 2020, assuming same rate), lots of crazy other side effect will occur.

Bitcoin isn't going to keep growing this fast. It'll go parabolic for a while, and then settle at a midpoint between where the rally began and where it peaked.

I think bitcoin will eventually be replaced by a PoS coin: https://medium.com/@zby/proof-of-stake-can-be-cheaper-than-p...

I think that only people who don't understand that PoS can't be done trustlessly, and don't understand why that is an issue, say that.

This seems to be the latest meme for why bitcoin can't work. The reality is that bitcoin uses as much power as it does because it is sought after at the current energy cost. If it is important to you, increase the energy cost. Bitcoin already has a fee market, and incentivized miners. If it is no longer economically feasible to mine at the current price because of energy prices, miners will cease mining until it is economically feasible again.

Bitcoin isn't to blame for cheap energy. If it is too cheap, take it up with the people selling it at that price.

> Unfortunately no mechanism seems to exist to balance security vs cost

Bitcoin does include a perfectly good mechanism to balance security vs cost: the transaction fee market. Users decide how much they want to pay in transaction fees.

The reason for the high electricity use today is the temporary block reward for mining each block. The block reward halves every three years. Once it goes away, the only thing funding Bitcoin's electricity consumption will be the transaction fees users pay. Obviously if Bitcoin does not provide enough value to users, they will not pay high fees. Electricity consumption will naturally go down to a level that matches the value people get out of the network.

Remember this next time you see an article complaining about Bitcoin's electricity use. I haven't seen a single article about this written by somebody who understands the difference between the block reward and the transaction fee market.

Users are not paying for security, they are paying for having their transaction processed. In fact, I don't see that users have any way to measure the security of the network granularly: if secure, everything works. If not, systemwide chaos ensues.

The security of the network can be measured by any user. Multiply the mining difficulty by the efficiency of mining hardware and the price of electricity and divide by 2; this is the cost of running a 51% attack.

The beauty of the mining mechanism is that having transactions processed provides security at the same time. As long as users see value in having transactions processed they will be willing to fund miners with transaction fees.

However, you're right that users aren't paying for security directly. The fee market may not actually give miners enough revenue to ensure network security. When the block reward goes away electricity consumption will certainly drop (relative to transaction volume), but it may even drop too far to the point where the network is no longer secure from 51% attacks.

Mining is required for more than just the fees or the block reward.

Even if fees were zero and block rewards didn't exist, people who had bitcoin would mine so that no one else could mine and trivially double-spend (and thus devalue their bitcoin).

The value of mining is based in no small part on how valuable bitcoin are since mining is what preserves that value by preventing attackers from destroying it.

What's worse, the needed amount of electricity to secure an amount of bitcoins is relative to how much energy an attacker can expend, not some constant value which will remain low.

The final block will be mined in 2140, so we're not quite to the transaction-fee-only point yet.

The block reward in the final blocks will be 1 satoshi (1/100000000 of a bitcoin). The block reward will be completely irrelevant many years before that. We don't have to wait until 2040 for the fee market to overtake the block reward.

«Bitcoin's energy usage is getting a lot of press of late. Deservedly, I think - it is a bit ludicrous.»

Completely undeserved IMHO. Vastly more energy is wasted by sillier things. For example worldwide Christmas decorative lights consume 2.3 GW annually (assuming it's 3× the US), which is a lot more than Bitcoin (I estimate ~1.7 GW: https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=15858966) and yet I don't see nearly as many news article criticizing Christmas lights for using so much electricity... Hence why the criticism is undeserved/unfair. If we can afford to power silly feel-good lights, surely we can afford to power a revolutionary decentralized permissionless censorship-resistant financial network.

Don't forget that one of the sources cited—Digiconomist—overestimates consumption by ~2×: http://blog.zorinaq.com/serious-faults-in-beci/

I am sure this topic will be full of whataboutism - what about x, y, z industry's emissions?

Here's the thing - Bitcoin hung the energy albatross around it's neck long back - First by choosing SHA based PoW, then the one of the early transactions in US being calculated using the energy required to mine those and then most of the sold equipment focusing on hashes per watts consumed.

No other industry other than automotive has tied itself to energy so strongly. So, it is quite disingenuous to not answer this criticism without devolving into whataboutism.

There has been a solution in form of Proof of Stake but that has it's own issue.

I am sure there will be more energy efficient PoW in the future, so let's wait and see if Bitcoin is going to cost the future or not.

Calling out "whataboutism" only makes sense if the supposed "whataboutism" is meant to distract and bring up an unrelated topic. But the argument here is that no one comments at all on other "frivolous" pursuits that take similar if not more amounts of power. As I've mentioned in other posts, no one complains about the energy usage of video games and porn. It can be argued that video games, porn, and Bitcoin all have utility. So why is it a problem for Bitcoin and not porn and video games?

That's not whataboutism, that's calling out inconsistent logic by detractors.

So...saying (but what) "about the energy usage of video games and porn" is not whataboutism? Got it.

No. As I tried to explain, whataboutism is to distract from the topic to avoid addressing the issue, which is not what I am doing here. What I am saying is that no one sees any problem with using energy on porn and video games, and I think Bitcoin has as much utility as those, so I don't see why anyone has a problem with its energy usage either.

My point is that sometimes pointing out people's narrow-minded tunnel vision, in this case applying an inconsistent standard to something they dislike, is mistaken as whataboutism.

Now if I thought Bitcoin's energy usage was a bad thing, this would be whataboutism, but I do not.

In my first post, just after the whataboutism I have explained why this has happened. You cannot attach yourself to a metric which Bitcoin did with energy and then complain saying - attaching energy metric is wrong/unfair to us.

Pron and Games didn't do that to themselves. Still I digress.

Maybe I'm over-interpreting "work", in the physics sense, but won't any proof-of-work scheme have the same problem? To get more coins, miners need to do more work, and that takes more energy.

I can't see that it matters what the hashing scheme is, the work will always expand to use the available energy.

> Maybe I'm over-interpreting "work", in the physics sense, but won't any proof-of-work scheme have the same problem? To get more coins, miners need to do more work, and that takes more energy.

Only if we assume mining, in it's current BTC implementation, is the only acceptable PoW.

I think there are other PoW alternatives that could be used. And they'll be identified and implemented soon, in the next couple years, as people realize we can swap out SHA hashing for an algorithm that does something productive, and use the output of that algorithm to be the proof of work.

The amount of computing power in ASIC miners running today is quite large, and has grown quickly. If we think of those computing resources running something else, and verifying work across nodes, then this is quite possible.

I'm very skeptical that some task can be found that's really useful in itself and is predictable and cheat-proof enough to be usable for something like Bitcoin.

I mean, are you thinking of something like SETI or Folding@home? Those are arguably useful, but there's a ton of scope for playing around with the problem scope and developing new variants that might require far fewer resources but remain useful -- and that's a good thing! But it surely makes them less usable as PoW systems.

Yes, exactly. I don't think requiring fewer computing resources is a bad thing, having multiple nodes in the blockchain come to the same conclusion could provide a level of trust similar to the existing mining algorithm. That's wasteful as well, but not as wasteful.

But how do you address the fundamental problem of an arms race between miners? They could end up burning 90% of the world's energy production madly calculating protein folds. Is that a good return on investment?

In my opinion, it's a better return than calculating SHA hashes with no aim other than to do work.

We could prioritize computing problems by increasing the reward for working "more important" problems (find asteroids that are going to hit us?).

It's better but not much better. How do you avoid an arms race? Who gets to decide what problems are important?

Depends on the incentive scheme to stop malicious actors. Current form of "PoW" relies on computational hahsing to stop the attacks.

PoS, an alternative "work" scheme, relies on staking and risk of losing coins to stop bad actors. The person who gets to mine the block is still hashing and creating the block.

Ethereum, as an example, started out with PoW but soon moves to PoS. So, it is trying to avoid a situation like Bitcoin were highpowered hashing (a word coined by Satoshi) and electricity is in focus.

I'm probably just nitpicking over words then. If it's not PoW don't call it PoW.

Somebody mentioned the use of SHA as a specific problem, as if a different hash function could be better. My point is just that any work function at all would be just as bad.

PoS sounds worth investigating.

B.S. -- if we replace all electric grids with solar, it doesn't matter how many miners spin up, they'll all be on solar thus renewable.

If anything -- it'd even make more sense for BTC companies to use solar since costs are a LOT cheaper.

More power usage = greater overall cost of energy production. That's true regardless of method of production. We are not now, and never will be (barring radical changes in our economic system) living in a world with abundant energy. Bitcoin miners compete for energy with other industries, driving total energy usage up. Ultimately, there's a cap to how much energy we can produce on Earth, and you'd be surprised how close we are to that limit, assuming production growth similar to the historical average.

Edit: To expand on the last claim a little, I was thinking of this: https://dothemath.ucsd.edu/2011/07/galactic-scale-energy/

The graph of Earth's surface temperature assuming 2.3% yearly growth in energy consumption is... illuminating. Basically, in a bit over 400 years, the surface temperature on Earth would reach the boiling point of water, not due to the complex effects of climate change, but simply because the amount of waste heat generated by energy production and usage will exceed the Earth's capacity to dissipate into space. Obviously disastrous temperatures would occur rather sooner. Unfortunately our societies hinge on constant economic growth, which, in turn, seems to hinge on growing energy usage.

Couldn't we beam energy from outerspace/moon as lasers to cooled facilities that absorb/store the energy? How else would a dyson sphere work to get energy to the planet without obliterating it?

Presumably when you have a Dyson sphere, you're not planetbound any more.

"We are not now, and never will be (barring radical changes in our economic system) living in a world with abundant energy."

Unless we build nuclear fusion reactors, which seems quite likely on the 400 year time scale you're talking about.

Doesn't matter. They produce heat, which must be got rid of somehow. The point is, steady growth is disastrous on surprisingly short timescales.

I think that post greatly undersells the potential energy production of nuclear fusion. It tries to discount that potential by noting that however you go about it, if you want to produce more energy than the sun, on the surface of the Earth, then the average temperature of the Earths surface must exceed that of the suns surface.

But this is not a problem- it's well known that nuclear fusion reactors on Earth would burn much hotter than the temperature at the sun's surface. The average temperature of the Earths surface can exceed the average of the suns surface no problem, as long as much of that is concentrated in small areas- namely, the spaces occupied by the reactors!

That didn't seem to be the point at all. The point was, practically all energy produced turns to heat on Earth. Assuming growing energy production/consumption on the planet, the sheer wattage of waste heat will eventually be greater than the planet can radiate into space, whatever the method used to produce that energy.

We could build fusion reactors (mini-suns) in space and beam back the energy in a usable state more condensed than solar to recepticles here, or even store it in batteries that we send back via space elevator.

The energy still becomes waste heat when used on Earth.

Don't forget about opportunity cost. All that productive energy that we turn into heat, could have been used for something else, no matter how much renewable energy production (or, rather, conversion) we have.

It could be used for carbon neutral or negative fuel production, for example, to keep things like planes in the sky and world travel cheap without harming the environment.

People seem to have some misconceptions. If we assume the cost of the mining hardware becomes negligible over time, then the cost of mining bitcoin is the cost of the energy. The amount earned by miners is: mining reward + transaction costs. The mining reward will decrease over time, so in the end it should be the transaction costs.

Now, we then get that as t --> big transaction costs = cost of energy because spending more energy than you make on Bitcoin loses money. People should be incentivized to reduce their transaction costs by going off-chain, using a POS chain, or other means.

I'd say its the opposite. Bitcoin has the practical capacity for its generation to happen in a place where you can put all solar panels. Maybe the future of miners is a cave in the saudi desert.

13 TWH globally? The US alone produces 4000 TWH of electricity [0].

This isn't a problem. It shouldn't be an article.

edit: global energy consumption is 110,000 TWH [1]

0. https://www.eia.gov/electricity/annual/html/epa_01_01.html

1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/World_energy_consumption

That's 1% of global energy usage, and you say it isn't worth writing about?

*edit yep math's wrong. It's still a shitload of power and worth writing about.

Check your math. 13 / 110,000 = 0.00012. Or 0.012%. That's 1/80th of 1%.

If it gets to 1% -- 1100 TWH -- then sure, it'll definitely be worth discussing.

If your average power plant is 500MW, that's still 26,000 power plants the world would not otherwise need.

Edit: gah, embarrassing error. It's late.

No, you haven't converted MW to MWH. A 500MW plant produces 4.4TWH per year (assuming 100% capacity factor.. it'll be less than that depending on the type of plant). It's maybe 3.5 x 500mw nuclear plants.

Proof of stake will solve this for Ethereum by not burning processing power to secure the network. We'll likely end up with several of these methods and even if proof of work is still part of this it's likely much more specialized and just a small part of the system we'll end up with. So for the future this really is no problem at all.

There’s no evidence Proof of Stake is a viable replacement for Proof of Work.

I honestly had deja-vu when I saw this comment but then realized I guess it's just a shill-bot.

There is no known trustless architecture of PoS.

It’s easy to conclude the inefficiencies brought on by the abuses of the financial sector have done leagues more damage to our “clean energy future.” Poverty cuts environmental concern clearly out of the picture.

-typed in the mid-winter warmth of x3 GTX 980 Tis running NiceHash

Talking about clean-energy yet failing to compare CO2 emissions but merely refer to GWhrs is totally missing the point.

Several big Bitcoin miners are setup near or just being powered by hydroelectric dams or other renewable energy sources. And all of them of course target low costs, which a lot of times means that there's an oversupply of power in essence helping in some cases use energy that would go to waste otherwise.

You have to compare the gold or bank industry's to Bitcoin's mining emissions. Gold is constrained by the gold mines positions, uses oil a lot, unless someone does a proper study, all this articles are just sensationalistic articles by clueless journos hunting pageviews and likes.

Sidenote, funny how this is filled under "Currency Manipulation"

I don't believe that energy would "go to waste otherwise"; if it was priced low enough (and it should be, if it's going to waste), it would make economic sense to build distribution infrastructure, and it wouldn't be going to waste any more.

Energy is really fungible, one of the most fungible commodities. Hydro can easily substitute for coal, oil, gas and nuclear elsewhere. This makes your defence especially weak.

Which do you think uses more computing hardware, every Bitcoin miner in the world, or the VISA payment network? Even today, the answer is quite clearly the total Bitcoin mining network--now consider expanding the scale of Bitcoin transactions to the VISA network, a 1000× scale increase.

Almost by definition, cryptocurrency requires spending useless energy. In electronic transactions as they exist today, you essentially only have to update the tables in two institution's databases (plus all the replication and backups that entails). A cryptocurrency requires everybody to record their transaction--and do a bunch of useless cryptography to to ensure that they do so.

Asking how much emissions it costs to mine the gold or grow the cotton to satisfy my paycheck is misleading. Exactly 0 joules were spent: no gold needed to be mined, nor coins minted, nor dollar bills printed to satisfy the electronic transactions to decrement a number at my employer's bank and increment the number at my personal bank appropriately.

It uses more energy, but means you don't have to trust anyone to transact. It remains to be seen just how much that property is worth. (Quite alot, I suspect).

You don't have to trust anyone to carry out the financial part of the transaction. You still have to trust that the business side of the transaction goes through.

True, and a useful clarification

If you said, the miners are near wind-farms, then I would eat up your statement about oversupply. For hydro more or less, that is electricity that could be used for something else but being burnt.

I am not sure about Chinese miners being near hydro-electric some may be and some may be not, but over all its complete waste of energy.

When it comes to energy efficiency nothing beats centralized. I do understand the motivation behind decentralized, but you pay the price!

Hopefully Proof of Stake with reduced power consumption becomes a norm, but I am skeptical.

I would love to see a comparison of what current financial institutions greenhouse emissions look like.

Think of all the banks, branches, employees, servers, dirty investments, the works. I'm pretty sure BTC would pale in comparison.

On a side note, I've heard similar wild claims be made about the electricity used per Google search.

Wouldn't you then have to compare the entire Bitcoin ecosystem, not just mining?

Because bitcoin has a striking lack of middle men, unlike banking.

Sometimes I wonder if Bitcoin was a plot to destroy the world through exponentially increasing energy consumption that leads to accelerated global warming that ends the human race. Whoever created such a thing would have reason to hide.

Sometimes I wonder if Bitcoin was a plot to transfer wealth from cynics to optimists.

Same with the Military Industrial Complex, Big Agriculture, & mass prescriptions of Pharmaceuticals. Funny there aren't any complaints there from this outlet. I suppose it's not in their priorities to notice...

Those outfits often actually produce something of value.

Each of the topics provide different value to different parties. The crux of the matter is noticing this type of distinction.

For example, Bitcoin seems to provide independence from the Banking Establishment, which alters what sorts of activities are funded.

Industries such as the Military Industrial Complex, Big Agriculture, & Big Pharma has largely been co-opted by established interests. Public Relations is utilized to convince people to adopt philosophies that are friendly to these industries while not looking out for their own interests.

On the surface, there seems to be a dialectic between decentralized (Bitcoin) & centralized (the Establishment) forms of control.

It's easy to see the possibility for media outlets or NGO's are nothing more than fronts using the "greater good" as an argument to advocate for the interests of their benefactors. Edward Bernays describes this technique in some of his books.

eventually (on large time scale) this "value"has no difference except it produce the garbage that pollute environment even worse

Just like burning coal fueled industrial revolution proof of work fuels bitcoin revolution. This is a stepping stone. Alternatives to proof of work are coming but slowly and that's fine. But we'll get there.

Bitcoin is not "Money 2.0" but is a necessary stepping stone.

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