It’s not just about electricity: Bitcoin mines also burn a lot of water

Bitcoin mines don’t just consume energy, it turns out they’re thirsty. According to a new analysis, the water consumption associated with a single Bitcoin transaction could, on average, be enough to fill a small backyard swimming pool. Bitcoin mines are essentially large data centers, which have become infamous for the amount of electricity and water they use.

Bitcoin’s water footprint is growing, according to the analysis published in a commentary in the journal today Cell reports sustainability. That’s an issue to keep an eye on as Bitcoin’s price recovers from a spiraling crypto winter.

Bitcoin mines are essentially large data centers, which have become infamous for the amount of electricity and water they use.

The research was conducted by Alex de Vries, a PhD candidate at Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, whose previous research has tracked the electricity consumption and greenhouse gas emissions of cryptocurrencies. These issues have prompted lawmakers to push for greater oversight of the environmental impact of crypto mining. But until recently, most attention has focused on whether energy-intensive cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin could derail countries’ climate goals.

Bitcoin mining also has the potential to put pressure on water supplies in drought-prone areas. Miners use specialized computers to solve puzzles 24 hours a day to validate transactions and earn Bitcoin in return. All that computing power uses a lot of energy. And like other data centers, many crypto mines also end up using a lot of water in their cooling systems to prevent machines from overheating.

“It’s kind of hard to surprise me, considering the way I’ve been working on this topic, I’m kind of used to big numbers popping up. But on the other hand, the numbers are still astonishing even for me, every time I look at them,” De Vries told The edge.

To conduct his analysis, De Vries estimated the direct water consumption of Bitcoin mines’ cooling systems. He also added their indirect water consumption related to electricity generation, as power plants also use water in cooling systems. All in all, he found that cryptocurrency mining used about 1,600 gigalitres of water in 2021, when Bitcoin’s price peaked at more than $65,000. This amounts to an average of a small swimming pool water (16,000 liters) per transaction. According to De Vries, it’s about 6.2 million times more water than a credit card swipe.

Of course, everything dropped in 2022 as Bitcoin’s price plummeted and mining slowed. But the price has risen again since last year, from less than $20,000 to about $38,000 today. The higher the price, the more incentive there is to increase mining. That’s why De Vries expects cryptocurrency water consumption to rise globally this year to a new high of 2,300 gigalitres. In the US, the largest Bitcoin mining hub in the world, Bitcoin mining uses about as much annually as a city the size of Washington, DC.

These figures are estimates based on the assumption that Bitcoin mines run on water-dependent cooling systems typical of large data centers. However, some data centers and crypto mines use a different system that keeps computers cool and reduces water consumption by immersing them in a non-conductive liquid.

There is another way to make the cryptocurrency use a fraction of the water and electricity it currently guzzles and reduce greenhouse gas emissions: abolish the mining process altogether and find a new way to validate transactions. That’s what the next largest cryptocurrency network, Ethereum, accomplished last year.

If Bitcoin were to do something similar, “all electricity consumption and associated water consumption will disappear overnight. You know, we can make it happen,” De Vries said. “Apparently people still prefer to claim that the network isn’t as bad as we think, rather than actually doing anything about it.”

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