bitcoin’s massive energy consumption is the dirty secret of cryptocurrencies. To mine bitcoins, computers around the world consume enough electricity to power a medium-sized country, somewhere on the order of the Netherlands or Poland, according to the estimate.
which is why an investor-owned utility has installed a containerized data center across from a coal-fired power plant 10 miles north of st. Luis Ameren, the utility, was struggling to keep the 1,099 MW power plant running profitably when wholesale electricity prices fell. but it was not well suited to operating only when demand was high, known as peak service. instead, it is experimenting with running it full time and using the excess electricity to mine bitcoins.
cannot cope with the load
Ameren executives reportedly blame wind and solar power for load variability affecting the 55-year-old power plant. the utility claims bitcoin mining could reduce its carbon footprint by allowing it to run its plants more consistently rather than scaling them up and down, which they say can increase emissions.
“We have pretty drastic load changes minute by minute, second by second at times,” warren wood, vice president of legislative and regulatory affairs for the utility, told e&e news. but when it’s running full time, they just have to take power away from mining operations. wood said it takes about 20 seconds to divert power to the grid.
Compared to gas spikes, which typically need at least five minutes to reach full capacity, that’s pretty quick. but it’s also incredibly slow compared to grid-scale batteries, which can respond in milliseconds.
Across the network, cryptocurrency mining operations could “add a lot of value, particularly how quickly they can move up and down,” joshua rhodes, a research associate at the university of texas, told e&e news. in austin. “It can have a positive impact on emissions if it’s done the right way,” he said. “it can also increase emissions if it’s not.”
The utility says that if its bitcoin experiment is successful, it could connect containerized data centers akin to wind and solar farms to profitably soak up excess electricity at times of high supply or low demand. the coal-fired power plant being used in the experiment is scheduled to close in 2028.
ameren says he is happy with the project so far, having mined 20 coins and minting a new one every 15 days or so. Whether the math still works depends largely on the cost of running the plant and the price of bitcoin, which is very volatile. Based on today’s prices, the company has made around $800,000 since turning miners on in April.