Fossils vs. Renewables, PoW vs. PoS: Key policy issues around crypto mining in the U.S.

On Jan. 27, a group of eight U.S. lawmakers, led by Senator Elizabeth Warren, sent letters to the world’s six largest Bitcoin mining companies, demanding to reveal the detailed data on their electricity consumption. This isn’t the first time Senator Warren requested this information from a mining operation — last month a similar letter was sent to Greenidge Generation, which uses a natural gas plant to power its facility.

These moves highlight the increasing regulatory pressure on crypto mining businesses in the United States. But, as last week’s Congress hearing showed, the growing scrutiny might turn out to be an opportunity to align the mining sector’s development with the broader political push for clean energy. Here are some of the key themes around crypto mining that have captured the lawmakers’ attention and that will likely inform the intensifying policy conversation.

Total energy consumption

A cornerstone of any environmental critique of Bitcoin and crypto in general, the question of how much energy cryptocurrency mining consumes was expectedly prominent at the hearing. In a 2018 paper published in the prestigious journal Nature, a group of researchers predicted that Bitcoin’s growth could singlehandedly push global emissions above 2 degrees Celsius within less than three decades — not a good look given the international community’s stated mission to prevent the planet’s temperature rise of the exactly same magnitude.

Cambridge University Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index set the tone of comparing the yearly Bitcoin-driven consumption to various nation’s levels — and as for now, with its 131.1 TWh per year the most popular cryptocurrency consumes more energy than Ukraine (124.5 TWh) or Norway (124.3), according to this source. The current estimate of Ethereum’s annualized energy footprint by Digiconimist stands at around 73.19 TWh.

None of the most widely cited estimates is beyond dispute, as the recent fact-check report by Bitcoin Policy Institute (BPI) suggests. It cited three separate articles from the peer-reviewed Nature Climate Change journal, one of them debunking the 2 degrees argument as “fundamentally flawed” and criticizing its methodology.

Crypto proponents prefer to compare Bitcoin energy consumption not to nations, but to other industries — in that case, according to the BPI report, BTC’s 0.27% of global energy consumption is less than that of gold mining, although the Cambridge Index sets the two equal.

Fossils vs renewables

In the context of the ever-growing political pressure on energy consumption, the search for a sustainable energy framework becomes crucial for any industry that wants to flourish in the digital age.

The critics of the crypto mining industry have recently highlighted several instances of mining operations relaunching the existing fossil power plants. The authors of the letter that some 70 NGOs sent to Congress ahead of the crypto mining hearing called the legislators’ attention to several such instances, like the relaunch of coal waste plants in Pennsylvania by Stronghold Digital Mining and the partnership between Marathon Digital and coal-fired plants in Montana.

There is also evidence that these are not the only American companies buying up the old ‘“dirty energy” plants to feed their mining operations — the pattern is observed from Texas to Missouri. At the Congress hearing, it was Steve Wright, a former general manager of Chelan County’s in Washington public utility district, who talked at length about the problem. He explained that miners’ interst in dormant fossil facilities is driven by a simple market mechanism: As renewable energy prices (on the West Coast specifically) grow in line with increasing demand, coal prices drop due to investors’ flight ahead of the upcoming 2025 ban on any coal usage in Washington state.

As Represenatives kept returning to this issue over the course of the hearing, it became clear that the tension between the use of fossil fuels for crypto mining and the industry’s potential shift to renewable energy sources is at the center of policymakers’ thinking on the issue. Witness John Belizaire, CEO of green data centers developer Soluna Computing, argued that there exist scenarios under which crypto mining can shift from a being “dirty” energy concern to a vehicle complementing and empowering the renewable energy sector.

Belizaire’s core argument is that computation-intensive tasks like Bitcoin (BTC) mining can be powered by the recaptured excessive (or, in the industry terms, “curtailed”) energy otherwise wasted by clean power plants. According to him, solar and wind farms waste up to 30% of generated energy due to incompatibilities with the old energy grids. Belizaire also addressed the  problem of energy shortages allegedly driven by crypto miners, highlighting the fact that the kind of computations that miners execute can be stopped at any moment on-demand.

For now, the problem of “dirty mining” is here to stay simply due to the U.S. level of electricity production from renewable sources being below 7.5%. A recent study by DEKIS Research group at the University of Avila ranks the United States as the 25th country in the world in terms of its sustainable mining potential, with Denmark (65% of energy generated from renewables) and Germany (26%) leading the chart.

Nevertheless, America remains a safe zone for mining, while many other nations’ electrical grids are less suited to handle additional load. With a reasonable regulatory framework in place, this could be a massive competitive advantage, laying the groundwork for the U.S. to become a global mining haven. Speaking to Cointelegraph, Belizaire explained that there are certain policy steps that can nudge crypto miners to “go green.” He listed a number of specific measures: “Extended tax credits and special investment tax credits for miners that use green energy and serve as flexible load, along with DOE loan guarantee that is extended to encourage the development of green crypto mining.”

PoW vs. PoS

Any discussion of a possible alliance between crypto mining and green energy tends to bump into a Proof of Work (PoW) versus Proof of Stake (PoS) debate, and the recent hearing was not an exception. It was Cornell professor Ari Juels who repeatedly stated that “Bitcoin does not equal blockchain,” in the sense that the energy-intensive PoW consensus mechanism is not the only way to enjoy the decentralization advantages of crypto.

And, of course, the number one alternative on the table is PoS consensus mechanism that will possibly be adopted by the Ethereum ecosystem and is currently used in a large number of new blockchain projects. It is also central to the development of smart contract-based technologies such as decentralized finance (DeFi) and non-fungible tokens (NFTs).

Juels’ statements reflect the general pressure that is building up on PoW. Earlier this month, Erik Thedéen, vice chair of the European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA), proposed an outright ban on PoW mining in the EU and called for transitioning to PoS due to its lower energy profile.

In the U.S., dominating the global Bitcoin mining market with the 35% share, the issue is way more pressing than in Thedeen’s native Sweden, where only about 1.16% of BTC is mined. However, the real problem lies in the Asia-Pacific region, where, according to the The Global Cryptoasset Benchmarking Study, almost 50% of electricity to Proof-of-Work miners comes from coal.

None of the three experts who spoke with Cointelegraph on the matter see the the juxtaposition of the two consensus protocols as productive. John Warren, CEO of crypto mining firm GEM Mining, noted that there are “slim to none” chances of Bitcoin transitioning to PoS. With that fact in mind, and given Bitcoin’s status as the biggest cryptocurrency, ‘the industry should focus its attention on increased adoption of carbon-neutral energy sources versus trying to alter the Bitcoin verification process.”

John Belizaire rejected the idea that the government should support any of the bulletins over another:

Congress does not have enough knowledge to make a call on the technical architecture of a global platform that powers billions of dollars in assets […] The technology community should be the final arbiter of innovation […] The POW camp will innovate to solve its problems itself.

Mason Jappa, co-founder and CEO of mining company Blockware Solutions, remarked that both Proofs have their comparative advantages, but, in echoing Belzaire’s testimony, underscored the compatibility potential PoW networks possess towards renewable energy. In that sense, Jappa sees PoW mining as a “net positive for society”:

Mining is a perfect complement to the energy grid and is repurposing infrastructure that was otherwise not being utilized, along with providing a use case for building out our energy grid.

What’s next?

As Jappa noted, “It is bullish for the ecosystem that this hearing took place”, as once again the lawmakers expressed their understanding that cryptocurrencies are here to stay.

Warren specifically appreciated the part of the discussion that “underscored the ability for the mining industry to innovate more eco-friendly solutions.” We still witnessed plenty of 101 explanations of blockchain technology that reminded of the long way lawmakers should go in terms of their understanding of crypto economy, but, as Warren poined out:

It’s important to acknowledge that there were a number of positive remarks that stemmed from the discussion, showcasing to the nation that mining has created many new jobs and that Bitcoin introduced valuable blockchain technology to the world. That perspective has been largely missing from some of the recent public discourse around crypto mining.

Besides the obvious need for both the general public and legislators to get better educated on the issue, there are some clear focal points around which the digital mining industry could rally, Belizaire believes.

For example, laws or governmental programs that encourage the use of renewable energy over legacy fossil fuels to power the industry, like “Incentives for job-creating in rural parts of the country where mining operations are set up – at both the state and federal level.”

Thus, it appears that the green mining card is the one that can present a straightforward economic and environmental argument in favor of the crypto industry, while the PoW/PoS debate is something that should be reserved for the crypto community rather than regulators.


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Green and gold: The crypto projects saving the planet

It seems as though the potential benefits of cryptocurrency are often overshadowed by the technology’s inherent vulnerability to exploitation. 

And it’s true, crypto adoption does come with risks. Over the past year, governments from around the world have raised concerns that crypto could be used to finance terrorism or other illicit activity like money laundering. There have been prohibitive measures everywhere from China to Nigeria, with many crypto exchanges forced into a legislative chokehold. 

While crypto has its challenges, it has also become a tool for policymakers and activists wanting to make the world a better place. 

The climate crisis 

During 2021, public scrutiny of Bitcoin (BTC) energy-intensive mining practices dominated headlines all year long — and for good reason. According to Digiconomist, Bitcoin mining consumes a similar amount of energy to an entire small country like the Netherlands or the Philippines.

However, many environmental activists are already using the very same technology as a tool in the fight against climate change. For example, smart token contracts have allowed charitable institutions to raise funds in a way never seen before.

Many of these “charity tokens” have a tax system that charges a fee with every transaction, which can then be wired to a charity of choice. For example, the World of Waves (WOW) token is on a mission to restore the planet’s oceans and combat climate change. 

The project has a transactional tax of 11% that is redistributed back to all holders, 3.3% to the liquidity pool and 4.4% to the WOW charity wallet. As the charity wallet grows, funds are extracted monthly for donations towards nature conservation activities and the preservation of wildlife. According to the project’s Twitter page, over $49,000 has already been donated. WOW chief operating officer Kristijan Tot told Cointelegraph:

“It’s all about making a positive impact on causes around the world while shining the spotlight on NGOs and creators.”

In this way, charitable giving is hardwired into the token’s underlying algorithm. Not only that but holders are also incentivized to invest and stay invested in the project. 

WOW isn’t the only crypto project using this type of technology to raise funds for an environmental cause. 

Solarcoin distributes tokens as a reward to people who install solar arrays in their homes or businesses. The theory is that when the price of the coin exceeds the energy production cost, solar will effectively become free. The project’s website states:

“As of today, cryptocurrencies are worth over US$2 trillion. Most of that value was distributed in exchange for carbon-intensive crypto mining. What if it was given out to people who produced energy for free?”

Black Lives Matter

Of course, environmental conservation isn’t the only issue crypto projects have attempted to tackle over the past year. In June, the world watched in outrage as George Floyd was murdered by a police officer. His death sparked renewed momentum for the Black Lives Matter movement — and no shortage of controversy in the crypto community. 

As previously reported by Cointelegraph, a group attempted to cash in on the turmoil by releasing a George Floyd token, a project rife with shaky tokenomics and an unclear payment system. It was also reported that a person attended the protests holding a sign claiming “Bitcoin will save us.”

Despite the obvious bad taste of these isolated instances, the wider community mainly rallied for the cause. For example, the Giving Block introduced a solution for their users to specifically donate to nonprofits supporting the Black Lives Matter movement such as the Chicago Community Bond Fund, Movement for Black Lives and the Bail Project. 

Back in 2020, the crypto fundraising platform partnered with Gitcoin to launch its #CryptoForBlackLives campaign. Initially, Gitcoin matched donations up to $25,000 through a community grant. However, that tally was boosted to over $100,000 by the campaign’s completion.

Black activists have also worked tirelessly to ensure their communities are able to benefit from the monetary gains that crypto has to offer. Founder and lead engineer of Guapcoin (GUAP) Taviona Evans says that her platform was able to accomplish more in 2021 than any year prior. GUAP was created to help close the wealth gap in Black communities and support Black-owned businesses in the United States. She told Cointelegraph:

“We’ve sparked awareness about crypto among a population with less access and education in crypto and finance — and we continue to do so.”

Improving healthcare 

Another area of charitable giving where crypto projects have made a difference this year has been healthcare and mental health. In 2021, the health of many people around the world suffered immensely as the COVID-19 pandemic continued to spread. 

Perhaps one of the more unexpected results of the coronavirus was its profound effect on crypto and blockchain, which can be traced to the pandemic’s genesis in late 2019. 

From Australia to Mexico, blockchain technology is already being used to verify the authenticity of COVID-19 test results and vaccination certificates. 

A number of crypto funds and tokens have also emerged to support communities around the world that have suffered from outbreaks of the virus. In April this year, Polygon co-founder Sandeep Nailwal created the COVID-Crypto Relief Fund as a crushing second wave of the virus tore through his home country of India.

The fund was able to raise a whopping $429.59 million by mid-October, with Ethereum founder Vitalik Buterin, Australia cricketer Brett Lee and Coinbase chief technology officer Balaji Srinivasan among its contributors.

Is crypto a force for social good or bad?

If there has ever been a year to prove that crypto is truly morally agnostic, it was 2021. Around the world, the same technology used to finance terrorism was also used to fund healthcare amid the COVID-19 pandemic. While the world argued about the impact that energy-intensive BTC mining projects have on the environment, others created crypto projects and tokens to save our planet.

As we move into 2022, whether crypto is a force for good or bad remains in the eyes of the holder.