Bitcoin gobbles up clean energy — just when the real world needs it most

One of the biggest near-term threats to our clean energy future doesn’t even physically exist — but the danger is increasingly very real.

The stupendous growth of the virtual currency Bitcoin is creating real-world consequences. Massive number-crunching computer facilities for mining Bitcoin have popped up in parts of the planet where renewable electricity comes especially cheap. And now it looks like this mining is starting to siphon green energy away from everybody else.

Bitcoin is the best known of countless “cryptocurrencies,” which promise direct, secure financial transactions that don’t require any banks. Since its birth nearly ten years ago, the virtual currency has exploded in popularity. Bitcoin used to be popular for money laundering and drug deals; now it’s accepted at Subway restaurants.

To maintain security as its network grows, the math problems that Bitcoin “miners” must solve are getting ever more difficult. That requires a constant supply of additional computing power, which requires a constant supply of additional electricity. One Bitcoin transaction uses as much energy as a single U.S. household consumes in three weeks, and there are nearly 200,000 transactions around the world every day.

In total, Bitcoin now consumes about as much energy as Portugal. And it’s about to get much, much worse than that.

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