The New York Times published another report exploring Bitcoin's energy usage last week, and it went about how you'd expect based on previous criticism of the cryptocurrency's environmental impact, with the added twist of saying that Bitcoin was actually designed to waste energy in a bid to protect its network from attack.
Let's start with the figures themselves. The NYT said Bitcoin's energy consumption has "increased about tenfold in just the past five years" to approximately 91 terawatt hours (TWh) worth of electricity each year, which is said to be nearly 0.5 percent of "all the electricity consumed in the world," and more than many countries.
This isn't new information. Bitcoin's environmental impact has been criticized for years, with its detractors saying that devoting so much energy to a digital currency is wasteful, especially since much of that power isn't drawn from clean sources. (Which has started to change, especially as Chinese mining operations start to move.)
But the NYT put a fine point on the issue by saying that Bitcoin's intentionally wasteful. After explaining Bitcoin mining's reliance on what the paper characterized as "warehouses packed with powerful computers, racing at top speed to guess big numbers and using tremendous quantities of energy in the process," it said:
"In [Bitcoin creator Satoshi] Nakamoto’s system, it would make more economic sense for a hacker to spend the resources on mining Bitcoin and collecting the rewards, rather than on attacking the system itself. [...] This is how Bitcoin mining turns electricity into security. It’s also why the system wastes energy by design."
There are other environmental factors to consider, too, such as the rate at which Bitcoin miners wear out the hardware used in their rigs. But the NYT contended that even reducing the amount of e-waste generated by miners and switching to renewable energy wouldn't be enough to justify the cryptocurrency's power usage.
"Globally, estimates of Bitcoin’s use of renewables range from about 40 percent to almost 75 percent," the NYT said. "But in general, experts say, using renewable energy to power Bitcoin mining means it won’t be available to power a home, a factory or an electric car."
This contention shows how difficult it will be for this debate to be settled. It seems environmentalists are content to shift the goal post every time Bitcoin mining shifts to use more clean energy, and until cryptocurrencies are more widely accepted, devoting power to them can be characterized as wasting electricity on fake money.
It's an endless loop. As long as Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies hold value, people are going to continue to devote power to mining them, whether it's a large operation using renewable energy or a small group of criminals stealing electricity. And as long as people are mining cryptocurrency, they're going to be criticized for doing so.