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.


Saudi Arabia is world’s energy ‘shock absorber’ says minister Al-Falih

Updated 30 min 59 sec ago
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Saudi Arabia is world’s energy ‘shock absorber’ says minister Al-Falih

  • Al-Falih told an energy event in India that it was time this balancing role was respected and acknowledged by the international community.
  • He added that the Kingdom wanted to continue playing the global balancing role that it currently plays.

RIYADH: Saudi Energy Minister Khalid Al-Falih on Monday said that the Kingdom was the world’s energy “shock absorber” and pledged to continue to offer a cushion to global supply interruptions.
But he also warned that it was time that this balancing role was respected and acknowledged by the international community.
His remarks come amid concerns among energy-importing nations about the recent rise in the oil price and increased pressure from the US for the Kingdom to boost production.
“We could have another unanticipated, unplanned disruption. We’ve seen Libya, we’ve seen Nigeria, we’ve seen Venezuela and we have sanctions on Iran. These supply disruptions need a shock absorber,” Al-Falih told the CERAWeek event by IHS Markit.
“The shock absorber has been, to a large part, Saudi Arabia. We have invested tens of billions of dollars to build the spare capacity which has been two to three million barrels over the years.
“It has been like a spinning reserve in an electricity system waiting to step in if there is a disruption. We’ve done it out of a sense of responsibility.”
He added that the Kingdom wanted to continue playing that role but also hoped that “the global community of nations will respect and acknowledge what Saudi Arabia has done.
“Once again, we in Saudi Arabia in particular delivered on our role as the world’s cushion against market shocks and today I want to assure our Indian partners and petroleum consumers around the world that we want to continue to support the growth of the global economy,” he said.
In a wide-ranging address, Al-Falih also acknowledged India’s increasingly important status as an energy-consuming nation.

 

With a population that is increasing by some 15 million people per year, India has become a key market for Saudi Arabia and other regional oil exporters.
“India is the world’s fastest- growing energy and oil consuming nation. This trend is playing an important role for driving future demand for oil and gas for decades to come,” he said.
“There can be little doubt that India’s rise as an economic superpower will be accompanied by massive energy demand growth.”
 

FACTOID

With a population that is increasing by some 15 million people per year, India has become a key market for Saudi Arabia and other regional oil exporters.