In the contemporary era of rapid technological innovation and growing environmental awareness, the intersection between bitcoin and sustainability has become a prominent topic of discussion. Bitcoin mining, as a central component of the cryptocurrency ecosystem, has been the subject of scrutiny due to its substantial energy consumption and potential impact on the environment.
The process known as bitcoin mining involves verifying transactions and adding new blocks to the bitcoin blockchain. This process is known for being energy intensive, and the energy sources used have significant implications for the environment.
This is the main reason why bitcoin mining has always been criticized for its high energy consumption and environmental impact. The energy sources used for bitcoin mining, however, have evolved over time as the industry looks for more sustainable options
Over the years, there has been a change in perception and environmental impact of bitcoin mining as the energy sources used have evolved along with the format of the activity. In this context, it is imperative to analyze the evolving dynamics of the energy sources employed in bitcoin mining and evaluate this transformation in relation to its environmental impact.
This text seeks to demonstrate the historical path and current trends in bitcoin mining energy use, critically examining the transition from non-renewable energy sources to more sustainable alternatives, and exploring the potential for greater innovation and efficiency in the future.
In addition, the analysis extends to address the wider context of how these changes are shaping public perception and the positioning of the cryptocurrency industry within the broader spectrum of global sustainability goals.
Initial Energy Sources
In bitcoin’s initial phase, the mining of this digital asset was in its infancy and did not attract the widespread attention seen today. Therefore, it was primarily done by individuals and ordinary computers, making the activity scattered.
As bitcoin gained popularity and interest grew, miners began to use more specialized hardware, such as ASICs (application-specific integrated circuits), as a more efficient way of mining bitcoins, thus seeking to capitalize on the lucrative rewards associated with mining. This process has led to a significant increase in energy consumption.
This scenario of accelerated growth has led to the consolidation and scaling of mining operations. There was also an increase in the need for more efficient and economical energy sources, especially due to the many criticisms the activity received from a world that was increasingly demanding energy consumption with a lower carbon footprint.
Given that non-renewable energy sources such as coal and natural gas were widely available in certain locations such as China, and offered significantly cheaper energy costs, many mining operations continued to rely on these fossil fuels as the backbone of their energy infrastructures.
Dependence on fossil fuels resulted in high energy consumption and significant greenhouse gas emissions, further contributing to the industry’s carbon footprint.
As bitcoin mining continued to grow exponentially, the global community came to recognize the adverse environmental impact associated with the use of non-renewable energy sources.
This mobilization marked the beginning of a movement towards more sustainable and responsible practices within the bitcoin mining industry, culminating in a progressive transition towards alternative and more sustainable energy sources.
During this period, bitcoin mining relied heavily on non-renewable energy sources such as coal and natural gas. This led to growing concerns about the environmental impact of this industry due to the carbon emissions associated with these energy sources.
The paradigm shift
As environmental concerns intensified, there was growing recognition of the need to switch to more sustainable energy sources. This occurred especially in parts of the world where ESG policies were being more widely adopted and new fundraising was linked to this new order. The bitcoin mining community, like other sectors of society, began looking for ways to adapt to this paradigm shift.
The industry, which had previously been seen primarily through the lens of financial and technological innovation, became associated with environmental issues. As global environmental awareness has deepened and the impacts of climate change have become more apparent, bitcoin mining has faced increasing scrutiny due to its reliance on non-renewable energy sources.
Stakeholder influence and regulation
Investors, regulators and the public in general began to demand greater transparency and accountability regarding the energy sources used in bitcoin mining. In addition, environmental regulations and policies have begun to be implemented in various jurisdictions to mitigate the environmental impact of the activity. For example, some regions of China, which used to be one of the industry’s biggest centers, have implemented restrictions on bitcoin mining based on environmental concerns.
Transition to renewable energy sources
In response to growing sustainability demands, many bitcoin mining operations have begun to explore and adopt renewable energy sources. Hydroelectric, solar and wind generation have emerged as viable alternatives. In addition, some mining operations began to move to regions where renewable energy was more accessible and abundant. For example, countries with an abundance of hydroelectric power, such as Iceland and Canada, became popular destinations for bitcoin miners.
As this paradigm shift began to unfold, internal and external stakeholders began to insist on more sustainable mining practices. This created space for a new energy source concept for mining operators.
Hybrid strategies that combine renewable and non-renewable energy sources in a balanced way began to gain popularity. Another energy source has come to the fore due to the demands faced by bitcoin miners, the use of surplus energy by the network.
Due to the existing limitations of renewable energies, such as solar and wind, some miners have begun to take advantage of the surplus energy produced that is not stored, in order to optimize their operations and minimize their environmental impact.
This paradigm shift represented a turning point in the evolution of bitcoin mining. As the industry strives to align its practices with global sustainability goals, it is imperative that it continues to innovate and adapt responsibly, balancing economic opportunities with environmental responsibilities.
Current composition of the energy matrix in Bitcoin mining and the future
Bitcoin mining is currently consolidating the transformation begun in recent years in terms of the energy sources used. According to recent data, the mining industry uses a significant amount of sustainable energy, both through direct consumption, and also through the use of network surpluses from these sources.
According to data from the BEEST (Bitcoin Energy and Emissions Sustainability Tracker) model, by June 2023, bitcoin mining uses approximately 52.6% sustainable energy, of which 23.1% is hydroelectric energy, 14% wind energy, 7.9% nuclear energy and 5% solar energy in its energy matrix.
This represents a substantial proportion of the network being powered by sustainable energy. Furthermore, the narratives around the impact and scale of bitcoin mining’s energy consumption are beginning to be redirected, placing the activity as a model for others to follow when it comes to the use of the energy produced in the world.
Bitcoin mining vs other industries
Another important aspect of bitcoin mining concerns the amount of renewable energy that this industrial activity uses compared to other prominent industries in the world.
The graph below compares the different industries, the evolution of their renewable energy use and the current state of renewable energy consumption since 2020. Bitcoin mining grew by 38% in the adoption of sustainable energy during the four-year period between July 2019 and July 2023.
This expressive growth during the period has placed bitcoin mining, especially after the ban on activity in China, as the industry that uses the most renewable energy among the world’s main productive sectors.
Much of this transformation has been driven by the withdrawal of activity from China in July 2021. The country, and the miners within it, mostly used coal as an energy source. The ban and subsequent migration of miners from the country forced them to look for new sources of energy in new locations, many of which are from renewable sources.
This period also saw an increase in the use of idle or wasted energy. The concept of using this type of energy consists of looking for networks that produce more than is consumed and partnering with this supplier, eliminating the waste of the surplus energy produced by the generator.
Comparison with other industries
- Banking sector: This industry’s energy consumption comes almost entirely from the ATMS network, branches, servers, data centers, among others. The banking sector’s energy matrix is estimated at 39.2% sustainable energy, which is basically the same as the average for the global electricity matrix.
- Industrial Sector: The industrial sector has an average of 32% sustainable energy in its matrix. The industrial sector reduced its dependence on fossil fuels from 72% to 68% between 2010 and 2021.
- Gold Mining: Gold mining uses 67.22% non-electric energy sources and 32.78% electric energy sources. Non-electric energy sources are almost entirely based on fossil fuels.
- Steel and iron industry: The steel and iron industry have the lowest energy matrix use with 9.8% sustainable energy. Coal currently meets around 75% of the sector’s energy demand, and the rest is supplied by electricity.
- Agriculture: The agricultural sector has an energy matrix with around 19.6% sustainable energy, the rest coming from fossil fuels.
Throughout this text, we have explored the evolution of the energy sources used in bitcoin mining and how this compares with other industries. Initially, bitcoin mining was heavily dependent on non-renewable energy sources, which generated a lot of criticism due to the impact of the activity on the environment.
As the bitcoin mining industry has evolved and become more professional, it has undergone a remarkable transformation and is increasingly relying on more sustainable energy sources.
This transition to renewable energy sources has not occurred in isolation, but has been driven by a combination of environmental awareness, technological innovation and political and regulatory pressures.
The increasing use of sustainable energy in bitcoin mining reflects a commitment to aligning with global goals so that fundraising is reflected as it is in other industries.
When we compare bitcoin mining with other industries, such as banking, manufacturing, gold, among others, it is clear that mining is playing a leading role in the adoption of renewable energies.
Bitcoin mining currently uses the highest percentage of sustainable energy compared to other industries and has achieved the greatest increase in sustainable energy use in a short period of time.
This change in the energy matrix not only addresses environmental concerns but could also have positive implications for bitcoin’s reputation and future acceptance. As bitcoin mining continues to evolve, it is essential that the industry continues to prioritize sustainable and innovative practices to ensure its long-term viability and mitigate negative images associated with it.
It is important to consider that bitcoin mining still has a long way to go to completely reduce its use of unsustainable energy sources. The continued development and adoption of renewable energy technologies, along with professional practices, will be crucial to ensuring that bitcoin mining can be both economically viable and sustainable and responsible in the future.
The energy transition in bitcoin mining is a remarkable example of how an industry can adapt and evolve in response to environmental challenges. It is a paradigm-shifting story that can serve as an inspiration and model for other industries on the journey towards sustainability.