Green Bitcoin Mining’: The Big Profits In Clean Crypto
Bitcoin is infamous for wasting enough electricity to add 40 million tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere a year—but now, a growing cadre of U.S. miners are developing green, and lucrative, new strategies worth a fortune all their own.
Growing up in rural western Pennsylvania in the early 1970s, Bill Spence played with his pals on piles of coal waste, oblivious to the toxic heavy metals right under his feet. After working as an oil industry engineer out west, he returned home in the 1990s and found the piles—known as “gob,” for “garbage of bituminous”—still pockmarking the landscape. The present worry is that these unlined pits are leaching deadly carcinogens into the groundwater—or, worse, that they will catch fire and start polluting the air, too. (Of the 772 gob piles in Pennsylvania, 38 are smoldering.)
So Spence, now 63, set out on a mission to whittle down the piles, restore the land—and make money doing it. In 2017, he bought control of the Scrubgrass Generating power plant in Venango County, north of Pittsburgh, which was specially designed to combust gob. But gob isn’t a very good fuel, and the plant was barely viable. Later that year, after being diagnosed with pancreatic failure and kidney cancer (which he speculates may have been linked to his early gob exposure), he stepped back from the business. Bored, he started dabbling in cryptocurrencies and soon had a eureka moment: He could make the Scrubgrass numbers work by turning gob into bitcoin.
After surgery and being taken off a feeding tube, Spence is now back at it, converting the detritus of 20th-century heavy industry into 21st-century digital gold. About 80% of Scrubgrass’ 85,000-kilowatt output is now used to run powerful, energy-hungry computers that validate bitcoin transactions and compete with computers worldwide to solve computational challenges and earn new bitcoins—a process known as mining. Depending on the price of bitcoin, which has recently been gyrating around $35,000, Scrubgrass realizes an estimated 20 cents or more per kilowatt hour (kwh) from mining, against just 3 cents selling to the power grid. Plus, because the plant is safely disposing of gob, it collects Pennsylvania renewable-energy tax credits now worth about 2 cents per kwh, the same as those available for hydropower.
Spence is one of an emerging cohort of American bitcoin miners who are turning one of the cryptocurrency’s biggest liabilities—its insatiable thirst for energy—into an asset. Whether they’re getting rid of waste fuels like gob, helping balance the electric grid in Texas or tapping into the flares at oil-and-gas fields, these cryptopower entrepreneurs are profiting by turning digital lemons into green lemonade. And with countries such as China, Indonesia and Iran moving either to severely restrict bitcoin mining or ban it altogether, the opportunity for domestic producers has never been greater. From just a 4% share two years ago, the U.S. has grown into the world’s second-largest miner, now accounting for 17% of all new bitcoins, according to the University of Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance.