Bitcoin is a novel form of currency that bypasses banks, credit card companies and governments. But as Elizabeth Shogren reports, the process of creating bitcoin is extremely energy intensive, and it’s setting back efforts to address climate change. Already, bitcoin has used enough power to erase all the energy savings from electric cars, according to one study. Still, towns across the United States are scrambling to attract bitcoin-mining operations by selling them power at a deep discount.
Bitcoin’s demand for electricity is so great that it’s giving new life to the dirtiest type of power plants: ones that burn coal. In Hardin, Montana, the coal-fired power plant was on the verge of shutting down until bitcoin came to town. The coal that fuels the bitcoin operation is owned by the Crow Nation, so some of the tribe’s leaders support it. But in just one year, the amount of carbon dioxide the plant puts into the air jumped nearly tenfold.
After our story first aired, the company that owns the computers that mine bitcoin in Hardin announced that it would move them to a cleaner source of power. The generating station is negotiating with other companies to take its place.
Bitcoin’s huge carbon footprint has people asking whether cryptocurrency can go green. Bitcoin advocates say it can switch to renewable energy. Others are instead developing entirely new types of cryptocurrency that are less energy hungry. Guest host Shereen Marisol Meraji talks with Ludwig Siegele, now the European business editor at The Economist, who gives his assessment of the challenges of making cryptocurrency environmentally friendly.
This is a rebroadcast of an episode that originally aired in March 2022.
Read: Bitcoin now negating a decade of progress in deploying electric vehicles (Digiconomist)
Watch: How Cryptocurrency Works (The New York Times)
Reporter and lead producer: Elizabeth Shogren | Editor: Taki Telonidis | Production manager: Amy Mostafa | Production help: Michael Montgomery and Amy Mostafa | Fact checker: Nikki Frick | Digital producer: Sarah Mirk | Score and sound design: Jim Briggs and Fernando Arruda, with help from Jess Alvarenga, Steven Rascón and Kathryn Styer Martínez | Executive producer: Kevin Sullivan | Host: Shereen Marisol Meraji
Support for Reveal is provided by the Reva and David Logan Foundation, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation, the Jonathan Logan Family Foundation, the Ford Foundation, the Heising-Simons Foundation, the Hellman Foundation, Democracy Fund, and the Inasmuch Foundation.