Power-sucking Bitcoin ‘mines’ spark backlash

A technician inspects the backside of bitcoin mining at Bitfarms Saint Hyacinthe, Quebec. (AFP)
Updated 24 April 2018
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Power-sucking Bitcoin ‘mines’ spark backlash

  • Local US authorities pushing back against bitcoin miners as power prices rise
  • Firms insist they bring revenue, investment and talent to mining locations

NEW YORK: Bitcoin “miners” who use rows of computers whirring at the same time to produce virtual currencies began taking root along New York’s northern border a couple of years ago to tap into some of the nation’s cheapest hydroelectric power, offering an air of Silicon Valley sophistication to this often-snowy region.
But as the once-high-flying bitcoin market has waned, so too has the enthusiasm for bitcoin miners. Mining operations with stacks of servers suck up so much electricity that they are in some cases causing power rates to spike for ordinary customers. And some officials question whether it’s all worth it for the relatively few jobs created.
“We don’t want someone coming in, taking our resources, not creating the jobs they professed to create and then disappear,” said Tim Currier, mayor of Massena, a village just south of the Canadian border, where bitcoin operator Coinmint recently announced plans to use the old aluminum plant site for a mining operation that would require 400 megawatts — roughly enough to power 300,000 homes at once.
In Plattsburgh, where two cryptocurrency operations have been blamed for spiking electricity rates, the prospect of more cryptocurrency miners plugging in spooked officials enough in March to enact an 18-month moratorium on new operations. The small border village of Rouses Point also is holding off on approving new server farms and Lake Placid is considering a moratorium.
For local officials, the power struggle has been a crash course in the esoteric bitcoin mining business in which miners earn bitcoins by making complex calculations that verify transactions on the digital currency’s public ledger.
Since it often uses hundreds of computers that throw off tremendous heat and burn a lot of power, it has tended to gravitate toward cooler places with cheap electricity, such as geothermal-rich Iceland or along the Columbia River region of Washington state.
The stretch of New York near the Canadian border similarly fits the bill. Cheap hydropower from a dam spanning the St. Lawrence River is doled out by a state authority to local businesses that promise to create jobs. Additionally, some municipalities such as Massena and Plattsburgh receive cheap electricity from a separate hydropower project near Niagara Falls.

 

In Plattsburgh, electricity is so cheap most residents use it instead of oil or wood to heat their homes. The couple of commercial cryptocurrency mines here can get an industrial rate of about 3 cents per kilowatt hour — less than half the national average.
But Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read said its largest operator, Coinmint, which has two plants employing 20 or fewer people, can consume about 10 percent of Plattsburgh’s 104 megawatt cheap electricity quota. When the city exceeded its allocation like it did this winter, customers ended up paying $10 to $30 more a month for the extra electricity. For a major employer like Mold-Rite Plastics plant, it cost them at least $15,000 in February.
State regulators have since given municipal utilities the ability to charge higher rates to cryptocurrency miners. At least one bitcoin miner in Plattsburgh says he’s working with the city on solutions to the power worries.
Ryan Brienza, founder and CEO of the hosting company Zafra, said those could include mining on behalf of the city for an hour a day or harnessing the heat from mining computers to warm up large spaces.
While the direct number of jobs associated with mines can be small, Brienza said they can bring revenue, investments and talent to the city while employing local contractors.
“It can start snowballing,” Brienza said.
Coinmint’s plans for a new plant in Massena, for example, come with a promise of 150 jobs. That’s welcome in an area that in the past decade has suffered though the loss of aluminum-making jobs and the closure of a General Motors powertrain plant.
“J-O-Bs. Yup. What we need up here,” said Steve O’Shaughnessy, Massena town supervisor.
Coinmint had asked for a cheap power allocation from the New York Power Authority for Massena for part of its energy needs, but that request was deferred.
The power authority has separately enacted its own moratorium on allocating hydropower to cryptocurrency operations — mirroring municipalities that have effectively pushed the “pause” button on a rush of miners coming in.
Coinmint representatives said this month they hope to begin the Massena operation in the second part of this year. The company stressed that mines can be a good fit for this job-hungry area.
“They’re also going to get substantially more efficient over time,” said Coinmint spokesman Kyle Carlton. “So to the extent that Plattsburgh or Massena or anybody else can get in on that and establish themselves on the ground floor, I think that’s going to help those cities to be successful.”

Decoder

Bitcoin mining is the process used to verify transactions and add them to the currency's public ledger (blockchain). It involves compiling pending transactions and turning them into a computationally difficult, mathematical puzzle. The first computer to solve the puzzle claims a transaction fee and a newly-released bitcoin.


Asia’s refining profits slump as Mideast exports surge

Updated 23 February 2019
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Asia’s refining profits slump as Mideast exports surge

  • Since 2006, the Asia-Pacific has been the world’s biggest oil-consuming region, led by industrial users South Korea and Japan along with rising powerhouses China and India
  • However, overbuilding of refineries and sluggish demand growth have caused a jump in fuel exports from these demand hubs

SINGAPORE: Asia’s biggest oil consumers are flooding the region with fuel as refining output is exceeding consumption amid a slowdown in demand growth, pressuring industry profits.
Since 2006, the Asia-Pacific has been the world’s biggest oil-consuming region, led by industrial users South Korea and Japan along with rising powerhouses China and India.
Yet overbuilding of refineries and sluggish demand growth have caused a jump in fuel exports from these demand hubs.
Compounding the supply overhang, fuel exports from the Middle East, which BP data shows added more than 1 million barrels per day (bpd) of refining capacity from 2013 to 2017, have doubled since 2014 to around 55 million tons, according to Refinitiv.
Car sales in China, the world’s second-biggest oil user, fell for the first time on record last year, and early 2019 sales also remain weak, suggesting a slowdown in gasoline demand.
For diesel, China National Petroleum Corp. in January said that it expected demand to fall by 1.1 percent in 2019. That would be China’s first annual demand decline for a major fuel since its industrial ascent started in 1990.
The surge in fuel exports combined with a 25 percent jump in crude oil prices so far this year has collapsed Singapore refinery margins, the Asian benchmark, from more than $11 per barrel in mid-2017 to just over $2.
Combine the slumping margins with labor costs and taxes and many Asian refineries now struggle to make money.
The squeezed margins have pummelled the stocks of most major Asian petroleum companies, such as Japan’s refiners JXTG Holdings Inc. or Idemitsu Kosan, South Korea’s top oil processor SK Innovation, Asia’s top oil refiner China Petroleum & Chemical Corp. and Indian Oil Corp., with some companies dropping by about 40 percent over the past year. Jeff Brown, president of energy consultancy FGE, said the surge in exports and resulting oversupply were a “big problem” for the industry.
“The pressure on refinery margins is a case of death by a thousand cuts ... Refinery upgrades throughout the region are bumping up against softening demand growth,” he said.
The profit slump follows a surge in fuel exports from China, India, Japan, South Korea and Taiwan. Refinitiv shipping data shows fuel exports from those countries have risen threefold since 2014, to a record of around 15 million tons in January.
The biggest jump in exports has come from China, where refiners are selling off record amounts of excess fuel into Asia.
“There is a risk for Asian market turmoil if (China’s fuel) export capacity remains at the current level or grows further,” said Noriaki Sakai, chief executive officer at Idemitsu Kosan during a news conference last week.
But Japanese and South Korean fuel exports have also risen as demand at home falls amid mature industry and a shrinking population. Japan’s 2019 oil demand will drop by 0.1 percent from 2018, while South Korea’s will remain flat, according to forecasts from Energy Aspects.
In Japan, oil imports have been falling steadily for years, yet its refiners produce more fuel than its industry can absorb. The situation is similar in South Korea, the world’s fifth-biggest refiner by capacity, according to data from BP.
Cho Sang-bum, an official at the Korea Petroleum Association, which represents South Korean refiners, said the surging exports had “triggered a gasoline glut.”
That glut caused negative gasoline margins in January.