Bitcoin (BTC)–By now, most within and outside of the industry of cryptocurrency are familiar with the narrative surrounding Bitcoin energy usage. The argument goes that as Bitcoin becomes a more popular choice in terms of digital currency, the increase of miners looking to capitalize on transaction fees and reward payouts will increase, thereby also raising the hashing difficulty of the cryptocurrency.
The end result will be more rigs competing for the ultimate prize of the mined blocks–and also consuming a proportionally higher amount of energy. The debate has grown so large that environmentalists and other conservation oriented researchers and politicians have weighed in on cryptocurrency as “evil,” saying it promotes a type of waste that is not necessary in today’s digital age. Others have pointed to the overwhelming benefits of proof of work, and the associated electrical costs as a by-product of a maturing industry. In addition, many cryptocurrency projects have started to emerge that forego energy-intensive Proof of Work systems, while still providing the benefits of blockchain and secure digital payments.
Now, a researcher out of the University of Pittsburgh is weighing in with a bold claim: that energy consumption related to Bitcoin is being unnecessarily criticized by people who find Proof of Work to be a flaw for Bitcoin, when in reality it constitutes a usable feature. Dr. Katrina Kelly-Pitou, electrical and computer engineering research associate at the University of Pittsburgh, wrote an article for the outlet The Conversation in which she claims that the environmental conservation slant against Bitcoin is being used to spread false claims, in addition to being grossly oversimplified in terms of the impact of the technology. In particular, she uses the idea of Bitcoin’s energy crisis as a ‘red herring,’ that distracts people from pursuing a deeper understanding of digital currencies in favor of the knee-jerk reaction to mounting energy costs,
“I am a researcher who studies clean energy technology, specifically the transition toward decarbonized energy systems…New technologies – such as data centers, computers and before them trains, planes and automobiles – are often energy-intensive. Over time, all of these have become more efficient, a natural progression of any technology: Saving energy equates to saving costs.”
As Dr. Kelly-Pitou points out, technologies naturally follow a curve of becoming more resource efficient, which includes Bitcoin and miners finding a way to cut costs while still retaining the benefits of blockchain and reward payouts. Instead of focusing on how much energy Bitcoin mining consumes, Dr. Kelly-Pitou makes the argument that the technology should be focused on developing into a more efficient model, while the greater portion of society should look to renewable resources as a way to supply the power for advancing technological innovation.
Instead, the current narrative is one to shun the growth of a new industry–cryptocurrency being one of several technologies to draw the ire of environmental conservationists–thereby slowing down the overall progress of society as opposed to finding ways to merge technology with more efficient energy production. As she puts it, energy-focused conversations have the effect of keeping Bitcoin in a category of misunderstood, with people failing to go beyond a surface-level of understanding,
“Like many other aspects of the energy industry, bitcoin is not necessarily a ‘bad guy.’ It’s simply a new, and vaguely understood, industry. The discussion about energy consumption and bitcoin is, I believe, unfair without discussing the energy intensity of new technologies overall, specifically in data centers.”