Creation Care: Bitcoin mining means hot water for Seneca Lake

Article by the Rev. Shelly Banner, priest at St. James’ Episcopal Church in Pulaski and member of the diocesan Creation Care Initiative team.

Bitcoin is a cryptocurrency which creates an abstract unit of value that people track and spend with digital wallets. When someone contributes their computer’s power to process Bitcoin transactions, the computer also races to solve an equation, a process called “mining.” If the computer solves it in a way that meets the criteria developed in the equation, that solution will mint new coins. The number of “coins” created decreases by half every four years, known as “the Halvening“—which keeps the supply limited, guarding against inflation. The whole cyber economy is maintained on a blockchain, a shared ledger that keeps a tally of every Bitcoin transaction. As miners add transactions, the Bitcoin software coordinates and finalizes their contributions, making the ledger transparent and unchangeable and the system nearly impossible for governments to shut down. Not to sharpen the point too fine, but each transaction uses more and more energy usage, which must be created not in a digital atmosphere, but in actual generation plants. There within lies our Diocesan push to raise awareness: there are some actions that can be taken to prevent further destruction.

Central New York is place of abundant water in the forms of rivers and lakes of many sizes. Flowing water was one of the primary reasons for the initial settlement of Central New York by the European settlers, though Indigenous peoples had organized settlements long before their arrival. Flowing water provided energy to turn mill stones without permanently impinging on the water’s motion. When the power plants of the mid-twentieth century were also built on our freshwater lakes, it seemed a natural progression. Now in the twenty-first century, many of those plants have been decommissioned or shuttered. Some have been rediscovered and have been repurposed. This might seem a progress, but looking closer, we might want to step back and say “not so fast.”

Greenidge Generation Holding, in Dresden, on Seneca Lake in Yates County, has been given a limited run permit under the auspices of a Title V Permit, overseen, ironically, by the Federal Clean Air Act, through the Department of Environmental Conservation. The original plant was decommissioned in 2011. What happens inside the plant now is the generation of power for 8,000 industrial computers are used to mine Bitcoin. The plant hopes to expand to 30,000 computers. The plant is powered by natural gas, which affects air quality negatively. The plant currently has 35 employees.

Seneca Lake is a source of potable water for over one hundred thousand people. The generation of energy (power) includes the returning of water drawn from Seneca Lake back into the lake, but at an increased temperature. Over a two-month span, water was 6.8 degrees hotter at the outflow as compared to the intake. This hotter water is piped directly into the Keuka Outlet on Seneca Lake. This increased temperature is enough to leave the inlet at risk for algal blooms, which will render the water undrinkable. Seneca Lake, in the heart of the Finger lakes, is also wine country, which relies upon pristine water sources and clean air. Wine production in NYS supports jobs for about 50,000 people, all of which depend upon clean water.

One action you can take is to rally against renewal of the operations permit of Greenidge Holding, by contacting the N.Y. Dept. of Environmental Conservation and your state representatives. The window to make your voice heard is short: the permit renewal time is in October. The DEC will take comments until October 22nd and will hold two virtual public comment sessions at 1:00 p.m. and 6:00 p.m. on October 13th (details here).  Emphasize your concern for air and water environmental quality, health issues of diminished air quality and especially the protection of the drinking water for 100,000 people. You can email the DEC at [email protected] or get in touch by mail at: New York State Department of Environmental Conservation 625 Broadway Albany, New York 12233-0001.

If you care to research a little further, the team for Advocacy in our Diocesan Committee for Care of Creation offers following:

Digital currency vs Green Energy: Cryptomining draws environmental backlash.” Albany Times-Union, August 27, 2021.

Crypto gets captured.” Axios, August 11, 2021.

Note: this article was updated on September 10, 2021 to reflect an extension of the permit renewal period to October 22nd and to provide information related to virtual public comment sessions regarding the permit renewal to be held on October 13th. 

Featured image of Seneca Lake courtesy by David Fanuel on Unsplash.

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