Mining, particularly of Bitcoin, is often accused of consuming a great deal of energy.
In fact, the consumption of electricity at a global level to be able to mine bitcoin is quite high, given the fact that the hashpower is constantly growing, but when compared with that of all the online services is actually very low.
According to some recent estimates, the entire Bitcoin network would consume more or less 70 TWh per year – the mining consumption of other cryptocurrencies is negligible.
Instead, according to The Shift Project’s Lean ICT report, the total annual consumption of digital activities would exceed 3,000 TWh.
Therefore, bitcoin mining would consume only a little more than 2% of what all digital activities in the world consume overall.
Of this 98% of consumption not due to Bitcoin, a significant part is due to the huge data centers that are used for example for the so-called cloud computing.
Therefore, the enormous amount of data, files, photos, images, for example, that are stored on Google Drive, or on Facebook, or on WhatsApp, or YouTube, generate a higher energy consumption than that of the Bitcoin network as a whole.
Even audio/video streaming, such as YouTube itself, or Netflix and Spotify, consumes a lot of energy globally: it has been calculated that streaming alone in 2018 has generated the same amount of emissions as a country like Spain.
The Internet itself also consists of a physical infrastructure made up of cables, routers, switches, etc., which as a whole consumes significant amounts of energy.
Moreover, the amount of data that circulates on the Internet and is stored in the cloud grows year after year, ending up proportionally increasing the amount of energy used.
Therefore that 2% stated above could also not be disrupted more than much in the near future, considering also that some new technologies such as 5G or the Internet of Things (IoT) could lead in the near future to an increase of billions of units of devices connected to the network.
Overall, however, the Internet is only responsible for about 7% of global energy consumption, and of this 7%, only a small part is due to Bitcoin.
One of the major causes of this consumption, which also occurs in mining farms, is the need to cool data centers since they produce immense amounts of heat as a waste product of their computational activities.
Data center cooling is carried out using huge amounts of energy, which are one of the main causes of electricity consumption in this sector.
Apart from Bitcoin, the main solutions to reduce the environmental impact of these consumptions are basically three:
- move data centers to cold places, where they can use the local atmosphere for cooling;
- increase efficiency in order to reduce consumption with the same final results;
- increase the use of renewable energy sources, while reducing the use of fossil fuels.
As for the last point, many companies that manage data centers, such as Amazon and Apple, are already taking actions or have already done it, while others, such as Google and Microsoft, are studying innovative solutions.
On the other hand, already today a significant part of the energy used to mine Bitcoin comes from renewable sources, given that about 70% of the hashrate comes from China, and in particular from the Sichuan region where are used mainly hydroelectric power plants.
As far as the first point is concerned, some companies have already started up, but it is not so easy to transfer large data centres to the cold places of the planet.
Unfortunately, as of today, it does not seem that concrete measures have already been taken in regards of efficiency. There are several hypotheses being studied, such as not displaying videos to those who listen to music on YouTube, or removing autoplay from videos on Facebook, or encouraging users of Netflix not to watch movies or TV series always in high definition, but at present, these remain only hypotheses.