The hype surrounding cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin is fuelling speculation and a potential bubble that might burst around these decentralized digital currencies. But one of the biggest issues might not be a future crash, but the very real and immediate problem of how much electricity it takes to produce new units of cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin. The process of generating new Bitcoins is called "mining," and according to some experts, Bitcoin mining's global energy consumption exceeds that of 159 countries combined (more than Ireland or Nigeria) or equal to Denmark alone.
Obviously, this is a big problem. Some Bitcoin "miners" are coping by setting up "mining farms" in countries where electricity is cheap and plentiful. Others, like Manitoba, Canada-based entrepreneur Bruce Hardy, are using the massive amounts of heat generated by the computers that mine Bitcoin to provide warmth for food plants growing under the same roof. Watch this short CBC video on this multipurpose project:
Hardy is president of Myera Group, a company whose mission is to develop sustainable food systems using technology. Hardy also has a software company, and has been mining Bitcoins for the last couple of years, using about 30 computers in a readapted 20,000-square-foot building just west of Winnepeg.
This building also houses the company's aquaculture system, which consists of basil and lettuce plants on the second floor, and 800 Arctic char swimming in vats on the first floor. Nutrient-rich water from these fish vats (think fish poop) are then pumped upstairs to nourish these plants, which are being warmed by the heat generated by the Bitcoin mining hardware.
Previously, Hardy had been paying for air-conditioning to cool down the specialized hardware (application-specific integrated circuit or ASICs) that's required to mine Bitcoin, but he soon realized that he could save money by using that heat for other purposes. As Hardy explains on the CBC:
When bitcoin came, they were an excellent proxy for what a server could do in terms of emulating heat, and whether we could use that heat for agricultural purposes.
Hardy believes that instead of exporting Manitoba's hydroelectricity down to the United States, it could be potentially used in operations such as his to help grow the local economy, or to attract international investment from Bitcoin mining companies that might want to set up shop here:
The revenue from those bitcoins has helped me to keep staff on, it's helped me create these displays so we can show people what we're doing in agriculture innovation. If we can take our energy and use it here in Manitoba, we value-add that energy, and we can do all sorts of great things.
For now, it's too early to predict where an intriguing project such as this may go, considering that Bitcoin's unsustainable rate of energy consumption is likely to increase in the coming months. But as in nature, where there is no such thing as "waste," by repurposing that heat from Bitcoin mining to help grow food crops, there's at least the possibility of closing that loop to produce something useful. More over at CBC.