Have you heard that the electricity used by Bitcoin will exceed 33 terrawatt-hours (TWh) in 2017?

That is a lot of electricity! But how much is 33 TWh really? And if we are going to try to transition to a renewable energy world, how many solar panels will we need to install just to keep up with the electricity demands of Bitcoin? Electricity consumption by Bitcoin could increase to more than 500 TWh per year by the early 2020’s.

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How can we begin to square the extreme energy consumption of Bitcoin with our aspirations of a sustainable future? It seems that nearly all of our global efforts at green building design, energy efficiency retrofits, demand side management, and renewable energy investment are being undone by the block-chain currency phenomenon. It begs the question of what do we value in our society when speculation in Bitcoins has driven its price up so precipitously with seemingly no end in sight and with potentially disastrous environmental consequences.

In 2017, the land area required to power Bitcoin transactions with solar panels would more than cover the entire city of San Francisco. Unfortunately, our current electrical grid is not so green, which means that Bitcoin transactions today are mostly powered by coal and other fossil fuels, and in aggregate are responsible for emitting as much CO2 and other greenhouse gases as some of the world’s largest coal-fired power plants. In fact the 2017 Bitcoin electricity consumption is almost equal to 100% of the utility-scale solar power production in the United States.

Extrapolating for future growth in Bitcoin adoption and we can see that its electricity demand could begin to rival the world’s entire electricity consumption.

This is not sustainable.

There is only one conclusion that we can draw from these facts. Either Bitcoin must figure out a way to use less electricity, or it will cease to have value in a global economy that responsibly places a higher value on carbon emissions reductions than we do on the marginal benefits of cryptographic currencies.

This article is specifically about Bitcoin, but the same issue exists with all of our data and computing requirements in the rapidly expanding digital age.

1. digiconomist is the definitive source for tracking Bitcoin electricity consumption.
Articles calling attention to the issue include: inhabitat and grist
2. EIA (energy consumption is for electricity only and does not include heat energy, transportation, etc.)
3. This estimate does not include Ethereum and other digital currencies, which consumed an additional 11 TWh in 2017 and could grow even faster than Bitcoin.
4. sourcewatch
5. Comparing Bitcoin consumption (33 TWh) and existing solar production: The total electricity generated by utility-scale solar in the United States in 2016 was 36 TWh. Distributed solar (such as rooftop installations) generated 18 TWh. (EIA)

See also Greentech Media who compares the energy consumption of Bitcoin to that of the entire country of Ireland, and RMI News.