You might have expected something more from William Shatner in announcing that a company for which he’s the spokesperson, Solar Alliance Energy, had purchased a 165,000 square foot warehouse in Murphysboro, Ill., as the first of what it plans as many solar-powered facilities it will lease to cryptocurrency miners. Maybe a full-voiced, head-titled-back, “COOOOOOINNNNNNNNN!” as a camera pulled up and away.
Rather, Shatner, known for his roles as Captain Kirk on Star Trek and the eponymous T.J. Hooker, made anodyne statements about the future of currencies that existed solely as bits. “I am proud to be a part of the group that is powering the digital currency revolution,” he said in a statement. “Blockchain technologies, and cryptocurrencies specifically, are at the cutting edge of a new distributed technology infrastructure.”
The Shatner connection is tenuous, but it highlights a significant and rapidly increasing problem associated with Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies: they require vast amounts of electrical power. The distributed worldwide Bitcoin network employs specialized server hardware that performs over 80 million trillion operations a second worldwide to find a mathematical needle in a haystack that allows them to collect a hefty reward and add transactions to a global ledger, called a blockchain. By comparison, the world’s fastest supercomputer performs 200,000 trillion operations a second.
The need for that much calculation comes with accompanying needs for power. A recent peer-reviewed paper that performed a rigorous analysis of the likely energy consumed by Bitcoin alone said the currency consumes nearly as much energy as all of Ireland, with a current annualized rate of 22.3 trillion watts of power (TWh) a year at minimum, compared to Ireland’s consumption of 25 TWh. Bitcoin’s electrical use could power roughly 2 billion average American homes. The paper’s author believes this could triple by the end of 2018.
Solar Alliance Energy’s Murphysboro facility will get a 3-megawatt solar panel array, which at a theoretical peak capacity could generate about one-tenth of 1% of power consumed by Bitcoin globally. But because solar only works during daylight hours and only at peak efficiency for part of the day, actual production will likely be far less.
While cryptocurrency advocates have promoted the idea of green power stoking the Bitcoin furnaces—especially off-the-grid sources devoted exclusively to mining—the scale and location of large-scale mining operations make any dramatic shift to solar unlikely.
Murphysboro has just 8,000 residents, which is typical of cities in which cryptocurrency mining operations locate. Small towns with cheap hydroelectric or other forms of power around the United States have increasingly wrestled with miners who come into town and start asking for tens of megawatts of power, the equivalent of large-scale industrial operations. Some public utility districts have imposed advance payment requirements for infrastructure upgrades, frozen new mining operations, or created new tiers of service to charge miners more.
Shatner was once a cryptocoin skeptic, but told the Chicago Tribune he’s now a convert. While he lives in California, he has a home in Kentucky, and expects he might visit the facility, which Solar Alliance Energy plans to start leasing out to mining clients by the end of 2018.