A deep dive on Bitcoin mining in the Finger Lakes

Are cryptocurrencies incentivizing renewable energy, or are they keeping old fossil fuel plants up and running?

Gouged out of the earth by glaciers, Seneca Lake is the deepest lake in New York, but in the bay by Dresden, it’s shallow enough to see the sandy floor through blue-green ripples.

In March, I had the privilege of visiting the Finger Lakes for the first time to report a story about an old coal-powered plant that found new life mining Bitcoin. Sure, it was converted to natural gas, but fossil fuel is fossil fuel.

I don’t want to get into what Bitcoin is here (I try to explain it as best and concisely as I can in my story). Suffice to say that a lot of debates about its environmental impact are really vague. For example, while everyone agrees that the Bitcoin network is a huge energy hog and that we generally know how much electricity it uses right now, its carbon footprint is harder to assess. I don’t think anyone knows for sure how much of the electricity it uses is generated by coal, natural gas, wind, solar, or hydropower. Bitcoin boosters will often make the case that most operations use renewable energy because it’s cheapest, although that can have its own repercussions (like, exhausting the supply and driving costs up for locals accustomed to cheap power).

When I learned about Greenidge, it clearly showed the exact opposite scenario: A private equity firm lobbied and donated their way into restarting an old coal plant using natural gas, and then used the electricity to start mining bitcoin at dirt cheap prices. According to the plant’s very own lawyer, it had to mine Bitcoin because it had stopped selling electricity to the public. (Why? Natural gas was too expensive and energy prices too low.) Translation: But for Bitcoin, it wouldn’t be running at all!

(Of course, now that they’re making hundreds of thousands of dollars mining Bitcoin every day, the plant claims to be a necessary source of electricity for homes and businesses again.)

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This has global implications because we’re in the midst of a climate crisis and need to stop spewing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, but there are also more immediate impacts to Seneca Lake, and the people (and wildlife) who depend on it. That’s really what I wanted to capture in my article.

Oh, and it was my first story for Grist! You can read the whole thing here.


Reading list

The Covid situation on Everest sounds really bad, after Nepal issued a record 408 permits this year. My knee-jerk reaction is that traveling to climb the world’s tallest mountain in 2021 is really selfish and an all-round terrible idea. IDK just spitballing here. (Alan Arnette for Outside Magazine) People are showering less during the pandemic, and I am here for it. I am generally an irregular, non-everyday shower-taker—in part because I have terrible dry skin every winter—and I welcome all new shower-lessers to the dark side. Reminder: It’s good for you and for the planet! (Maria Cramer for The New York Times) Joshua Tree’s mythos is so strong that this essay about how it’s “over” gave me heart pangs, even though I’ve never been before. It also introduced me to the fabulous neologism, gentrivacation. Moral of the story: Capitalism and greed are why we can’t have nice things. (Chris Clarke in Letters from the Desert). Leaf blowers are like, the world’s stupidest device, so I’m chuffed to hear 100 U.S. cities and towns have either banned or curbed their use. (Monica Cardoza for Audubon Magazine)

I also had some cicada content for y’all but I need to get on with the weekend and have to save it. You’ll just have to come back next time!

ICYMI

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