Bitcoin mining uses so much power that it may well turn into an environmental disaster.
The astronomical power draw is a facet of how the bitcoin network protects itself against fraud. With no centralised authority confirming transactions, bitcoin is instead backed by “miners”, who put specialised computers to work churning through extremely power-intensive computing problems.
A lot of Bitcoin miners are looking for cheap electricity, and if you own a Tesla, you get electricity for free at Tesla's charging stations. So it didn't take long for a clever Tesla owner to fill his trunk with mining computers. Jennifer Sensiba of Ecomotoring News describes what happened:
One member of the Tesla Owners Worldwide on Facebook suggested the idea, possibly in jest. Then another owner went ahead and did it, posting a photo of his setup. Some members suggested that his setup could pull as much as 3 kilowatts of power and would probably require the vehicle’s air conditioning to be on for cooling. Other members raised ethical questions. Is it stealing to use the power for something other than driving?
The answer to that is pretty straightforward: Yes, this is theft and it is unlikely that Tesla will put up with it for long.
Bitcoin mining is being powered by solar in Arizona, and hydroelectricity in Iceland, but mostly it's running on coal right now, and is becoming an environmental issue of some scale. According to Alex Hern, it is now consuming as much electricity as all of Ireland.
The estimated power use of the bitcoin network, which is responsible for verifying transactions made with the cryptocurrency, is 30.14TWh a year, which exceeds that of 19 other European countries. At a continual power drain of 3.4GW, it means the network consumes five times more electricity than is produced by the largest wind farm in Europe, the London Array in the outer Thames Estuary, at 630MW. At those levels of electricity consumption, each individual bitcoin transaction uses almost 300KWh of electricity – enough to boil around 36,000 kettles full of water.
He doesn't do the math on the carbon footprint of all that electricity, but 70 percent of bitcoin mining is happening in China, and according to Michael Kern of Cryptoinsider, "much of the mining takes place in the sparsely populated and less developed Xinjiang province of China where much of the power in these operations is generated from coal-fired plants." There are lots of people trying to use renewable energy (and a few stealing it from Tesla), but it is a drop in the bitcoin bucket.
Writing on Motherboard, Christopher Malmo tries to figure out the carbon footprint of it all, and writes:
That problem is carbon emissions. [Digiconomist's Alex] De Vries has come up with some estimates by diving into data made available on a coal-powered Bitcoin mine in Mongolia. He concluded that this single mine is responsible for 8,000 to 13,000 kg CO2 emissions per Bitcoin it mines, and 24,000 - 40,000 kg of CO2 per hour.
As Twitter user Matthias Bartosik noted in some similar estimates, the average European car emits 0.1181 kg of CO2 per kilometer driven. So for every hour the Mongolian Bitcoin mine operates, it's responsible for (at least) the CO2 equivalent of over 203,000 car kilometers travelled.
And now bitcoin is such a bandwagon that the power consumption is increasing dramatically. One site claims that, "in the past month alone, Bitcoin mining electricity consumption is estimated to have increased by 29.98 percent," and more dramatically, "if it keeps increasing at this rate,Bitcoin mining will consume all the world’s electricity by February 2020."
Somehow I suspect that something will happen sooner than that, such as a bursting of the bitcoin bubble. But it still is sucking a lot of power and producing a lot of CO2.