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Bitcoin energy use – mined the gap

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Of all the potential implications of blockchain for the energy sector, the energy use of cryptocurrencies – and bitcoin in particular – has captured the most interest.

As the price of bitcoin skyrocketed in 2017, attention turned to the cryptocurrency’s energy and environmental footprint. High-profile news articles reported that electricity use of the bitcoin network had equalled that of medium-sized countries and was on track to consume as much electricity as the United States in 2019 and all of the world’s energy by 2020. A widely reported article in Nature Climate Change warned that Bitcoin emissions alone could push global warming above 2°C.

With bitcoin value tripling in recent months and Facebook announcing its new Libra coin, interest in the energy use of cryptocurrencies is again on the rise.

In this commentary, we explain why and how bitcoin uses energy; dig into published estimates of bitcoin energy use and provide our own analysis; and discuss how these trends might evolve in the coming years.

Why does bitcoin use energy?

In order to understand why and how bitcoin uses energy, we first need to understand its underlying technology: blockchain. Blockchain offers a new way to conduct and record transactions, like sending money. In a traditional exchange, central authorities (e.g. banks) verify and log transactions. Blockchain removes the need for a central authority and ledger; instead, the ledger is held, shared, and validated across a distributed network of computers running a particular blockchain software.

The lack of a centralised, trusted authority means that blockchain needs a “consensus mechanism” to ensure trust across the network. In the case of bitcoin, consensus is achieved by a method called “Proof-of-Work” (PoW), where computers on the network – “miners” – compete with each other to solve a complex math puzzle. Each guess a miner makes at the solution is known as a “hash,” while the number of guesses taken by the miner each second is known as its “hashrate.” Once the puzzle is solved, the latest “block” of transactions is approved and added to the “chain” of transactions. The first miner to solve the puzzle is rewarded with new bitcoins and network transaction fees. The energy use of the bitcoin network is therefore both a security feature and a side effect of relying on the ever-increasing computing power of competing miners to validate transactions through PoW.

How does bitcoin use energy?

The energy use of the bitcoin network is a function of a few inter-related factors (some of which respond to the changing price of bitcoin):

  1. mining hardware specifications, notably power consumption and hashrate;
  2. network hashrate, the combined rate at which all miners on the network are simultaneously guessing solutions to the puzzle;
  3. difficulty” of solving the puzzle, which is adjusted in response to the network hashrate to maintain the target block rate of one block every 10 minutes; and
  4. energy consumption by non-IT infrastructure, such as cooling and lighting.

The rising price of bitcoin, particularly as it rose to all-time highs in December 2017, drove huge increases in hashrate and difficulty, and the development and deployment of more powerful and energy efficient mining hardware.

The IT infrastructure for bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies has evolved rapidly over the past decade. In the early days of bitcoin (2009), hobbyists used standard central processing units (CPUs) to mine bitcoin. By October 2010, miners started to use more powerful graphics processing units (GPUs) as mining difficulty increased. By June 2011, miners – increasingly large and more industrial operations – used more powerful (but less energy-efficient) field-programmable gate array (FPGA) hardware, and a year later, moved to application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs).

ASICs are purpose-built chips, in this case, to mine bitcoin. The latest ASICs are both more powerful and more energy efficient – around 50 million times faster (H/s) and a million times more energy efficient (H/J) in mining bitcoin than the CPUs used in 2009.

How much energy is bitcoin using today?

Diverse methodologies, limited data availability, and highly variable conditions across the industry (e.g. mining hardware used; electricity costs; cooling needs) make estimating bitcoin energy use extremely challenging (Koomey, 2019). Therefore, all estimates must be interpreted with caution.

Recent published estimates of bitcoin’s electricity consumption are wide-ranging, on the order of 20‑80 TWh annually, or about 0.1-0.3% of global electricity use (Bendiksen & Gibbons, 2018; Bendiksen & Gibbons, 2019; Bendiksen, Gibbons & Lim, 2018; Bevand, 2018; BNEF, 2018; De Vries, 2018; Digiconomist, 2019; Krause & Tolaymat, 2018; Morgan Stanley, 2018; Rauchs et al., 2018; Stoll et al., 2019; Vranken, 2017).

These figures can appear large when compared to countries like Ireland (26 TWh) or emerging technologies like electric vehicles (58 TWh in 2018), but small when compared to other end-uses like cooling (2 020 TWh in 2016). Nonetheless, bitcoin mining is a highly mobile industry, allowing it to migrate quickly to areas with cheap electricity. Localised hotspots and electricity supply issues can emerge quickly, generating strong backlash from regulators and the public.

Bitcoin has also been compared on a per-transaction basis to VISA payments, the broader banking system, and gold mining. However, comparisons on a per-transaction basis are not meaningful in the context of PoW blockchains, particularly because the energy required for the networks to function is independent of the number of processed transactions. A recent peer-reviewed article compared the energy intensity of mining bitcoin (17 MJ/USD) to the mining of other metals like aluminium (122 MJ/USD) and gold (5 MJ/USD).

Comparing methodologies

By far, the most frequently cited estimate in news media is the Bitcoin Energy Consumption Index (BECI), which uses a top-down approach that assumes miners spend (on average) 60% of their revenues on electricity at a rate of 0.05 USD/kWh. These key assumptions have been criticised to overestimate electricity consumption; indeed, BECI estimates represent the high range of published estimates to date.

Bendiksen, Gibbons (2018; 2019) & Lim (2018) also use a top-down approach, but undertake significant data collection efforts on existing mining hardware and mining locations to inform their assumptions and analysis. They also conduct sensitivity analyses around key uncertainties, including electricity costs and capital depreciation schedules. Under their central assumptions, they estimate that the bitcoin network consumes between 35 TWh (May 2018) and 41 TWh (November 2018; June 2019) per year.

Other researchers have calculated lower-bound estimates using a bottom-up approach (e.g. Deetman, 2016; Morgan Stanley, 2018; Valfells & Egilsson, 2016). This approach assumes that all miners are using the most efficient mining hardware to achieve the network’s hashrates (TH/s). The Bitmain Antminer S9 series (0.1 J/GH), used by two-thirds of miners worldwide, is typically used as a benchmark.

Using this approach, we can estimate that thebitcoin network (excluding cooling) consumed 31 TWh in 2018. Based on data collected from mining facilities in China, cooling and other ancillary demands accounts for 30% of electricity use overall, thereby adding another 42% to the lower-bound estimate. Therefore, we estimate that bitcoin mining consumed around 45 TWh in 2018, which aligns well with the latest peer-reviewed estimate of 45.8 TWh as of November 2018 (Stoll et al., 2019).

With the recent run up in price and hashrate, energy consumption is expected to be much higher in 2019. Through the first six months of 2019, bitcoin mining has already consumed an estimated 29 TWh.

While these early estimates provide a rough indication of bitcoin energy use today, it is clear that researchers need more data, in particular from mining facilities, to develop more rigorous methodologies and accurate estimates.

Bitcoin and climate change

Headlines concerning the environmental impacts of bitcoin re-emerged last October, when a commentary article from Mora et al. in Nature Climate Change concluded that “…projected Bitcoin usage, should it follow the rate of adoption of other broadly adopted technologies, could alone produce enough CO2 emissions to push warming above 2°C within less than three decades”.

A closer look reveals serious issues in the study’s methodology and assumptions, notably around bitcoin adoption rates, the efficiency of mining hardware, and the assumed electricity mix (Masanet et al., 2019, Nature Climate Change, In Press). Crucially, the use of country average (and in some cases, world average) emissions factors inflates the GHG estimates, since bitcoin mines are typically concentrated in renewables-rich states and provinces.

Indeed, the selection of mining locations depend on a balance of several key factors, including access to low-cost electricity, fast internet connections, cool climates, and favourable regulatory environments. For these reasons, China, Iceland, Sweden, Norway, Georgia, the Pacific North West (Washington State, British Columbia, Oregon), Quebec, and upstate New York are key bitcoin mining centres.

Around 60% to 70% of bitcoin is currently mined in China, where more than two-thirds of electricity generation comes from coal. But bitcoin mining facilities are concentrated in remote areas of China with rich hydro or wind resources (cheap electricity), with about 80% of Chinese bitcoin mining occurring in hydro-rich Sichuan province. These mining facilities may be absorbing overcapacity in some of these regions, using renewable energy that would otherwise be unused, given difficulties in matching these rich wind and hydro resources with demand centres on the coast.

Electricity generation in other key bitcoin mining centres are also dominated by renewables, including Iceland (100%), Quebec (99.8%), British Columbia (98.4%), Norway (98%), and Georgia (81%). Globally, one analysis estimates that the bitcoin is powered by at least 74% renewable electricity as of June 2019. Another analysis of data from 93 mining facilities (representing 1.7 GW, or about a third of global mining capacity) estimates that 76% of the identified energy mix includes renewables.

Based on these analyses and data from IPO filings of hardware manufacturers and insights on mining facility operations and pool compositions, bitcoin mining is likely responsible for 10‑20 Mt CO2 per year, or 0.03-0.06% of global energy-related CO2 emissions.

Outlook for bitcoin energy use and emissions

Apocalyptic headlines that bitcoin would consume all of the world’s energy by 2020 echo back to warnings from the late 1990s about the internet and its growing appetite for energy, including one Forbes article in 1999 that predicted that “[…]half of the electric grid will be powering the digital-Internet economy within the next decade”.

Since then, researchers have collected real-world data and developed and refined methodologies to establish rigorous estimates of the energy use of data centres and the global ICT sector, including by the IEA. The dire predictions about the energy use of the internet failed to materialise despite exponential growth in internet services, largely because of rapid improvements in the energy efficiency of computing and data transmission networks.

The outlook for bitcoin energy use is highly uncertain, hinging on efficiency improvements in hardware, bitcoin price trends, and regulatory restrictions on bitcoin mining or use in key markets. Bitcoin prices in particular are extremely volatile: between December 2017 and 2018, its value fell by 80%, but has nearly tripled since.

It is important to recognise that bitcoin is just one cryptocurrency, which is one application of blockchain, which is itself one example of distributed ledger technology (DLT). Ethereum (ETH), the second largest cryptocurrency by market value, processes more than twice as many transactions as the bitcoin network while using only about one-third of the electricity consumed by bitcoin. ETH also operates on a Proof-of-Work (PoW) consensus mechanism, but its founder has announced plans to move to Proof-of-Stake (PoS) in an effort to reduce its energy intensity. PoS and Proof‑of‑Authority (PoA) could help reduce energy use while also addressing scalability and latency issues. Other DLTs like Tangle and Hashgraph similarly offer the promise of lower energy use, scalability, faster transactions, and no transaction fees compared to blockchain.

Over the coming years, other applications of blockchain – including those within the energy sector – are likely to garner more attention. As the scope and scale of blockchain applications increases, these trends combined are likely to materially reduce the future energy footprint of its technology.

Sensational predictions about bitcoin consuming the entire world’s electricity – and, by itself, leading our world to beyond 2°C – would appear just that…sensational. That said, this is a very dynamic area that certainly requires careful monitoring and rigorous analysis – particularly, a careful monitoring of local hotspots.

The energy use of bitcoin and blockchain is just part of the blockchain and energy story. In our next commentary, we’ll look at how blockchain is already impacting the energy sector, dive into some of the most promising applications, and explore the technological, regulatory or market design challenges that await.

IEA

Energy

Indonesian Coal Roadmap: Optimizing Utilization amid Global Tendency to Phasing Out

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Authors: Razin Abdullah and Luky Yusgiantoro*

Indonesia is potentially losing state revenue of around USD 1.64-2.5 billion per year from the coal tax and non-tax revenues. Although currently Indonesia has abundant coal resources, especially thermal coal, the coal market is gradually shrinking. This shrinking market will negatively impact Indonesia’s economy. The revenue can be used for developing the country, such as for the provision of public infrastructures, improving public education and health services and many more.

One of the main causes of the shrinking coal market is the global tendency to shift to renewable energy (RE). Therefore, a roadmap is urgently needed by Indonesia as a guideline for optimizing the coal management so that it can be continuously utilized and not become neglected natural resources. The Indonesian Coal Roadmap should also offer detailed guidance on utilizing coal for the short-term, medium-term and long-term.

Why is the roadmap needed?

Indonesia’s total coal reserves is around 37.6 billion tons. If there are no additional reserves and the assumed production rate is 600 million tons/year, then coal production can continue for another 62 years. Even though Indonesia’s coal production was enormous, most of it was for export. In 2019, the export reached 454.5 million tons or almost 74% of the total production. Therefore, it shows a strong dependency of the Indonesian coal market on exports, with China and India as the main destinations. The strong dependency and the global trend towards clean energy made the threat of Indonesian coal abandonment increasingly real.

China, one of Indonesia’s main coal export destinations, has massive coal reserves and was the world’s largest coal producer. In addition, China also has the ambition to become a carbon-free country by 2060, following the European Union countries, which are targeting to achieve it in 2050. It means China and European Union countries would not produce more carbon dioxide than they captured by 2060 and 2050, respectively. Furthermore, India and China have the biggest and second-biggest solar park in the world. India leads with the 2.245GW Bhadla solar park, while China’s Qinghai solar park has a capacity of 2.2GW. Those two solar parks are almost four times larger than the U.S.’ biggest solar farm with a capacity of 579 MW. The above factors raise concerns that China and India, as the main export destinations for Indonesian coal, will reduce their coal imports in the next few years.

The indications of a global trend towards RE can be seen from the energy consumption trend in the U.S. In 2019, U.S. RE consumption exceeded coal for the first time in over 130 years. During 2008-2019, there has been a significant decrease in U.S coal consumption, down by around 49%. Therefore, without proper coal management planning and demand from abroad continues to decline, Indonesia will lose a large amount of state revenue. The value of the remaining coal resources will also drop drastically.

Besides the global market, the domestic use of coal is mostly intended for electricity generation. With the aggressive development of RE power plant technology, the generation prices are getting cheaper.  Sooner or later, the RE power plant will replace the conventional coal power plant. Therefore, it is necessary to emphasize efforts to diversify coal products by promoting the downstream coal industries in the future Indonesian Coal Roadmap.

What should be included: the short-term plan

In designing the Indonesian Coal Roadmap, a special attention should be paid to planning the diversification of export destinations and the diversification of coal derivative products. In the short term, it is necessary to study the potential of other countries for the Indonesian coal market so that Indonesia is not only dependent on China and India. As for the medium and long term, it is necessary to plan the downstream coal industry development and map the future market potential.

For the short-term plan, the Asian market is still attractive for Indonesian coal. China and India are expected to continue to use a massive amount of coal. Vietnam is also another promising prospective destination. Vietnam is projected to increase its use of coal amidst the growing industrial sector. In this plan, the Indonesian government plays an essential role in building political relations with these countries so that Indonesian coal can be prioritized.

What should be included: the medium and long-term plans

For the medium and long-term plans, it is necessary to integrate the coal supply chain, the mining site and potential demand location for coal. Therefore, the coal logistics chain becomes more optimal and efficient, according to the mining site location, type of coal, and transportation mode to the end-user. Mapping is needed both for conventional coal utilization and downstream activities.

Particularly for the downstream activities, the roadmap needs to include a map of the low-rank coal (LRC) potentials in Indonesia, which can be used for coal gasification and liquefaction. Coal gasification can produce methanol, dimethyl ether (a substitute for LPG) and, indirectly, produce synthetic oil. Meanwhile, the main product of coal liquefaction is synthetic oil, which can substitute conventional oil fuels. By promoting the downstream coal activities, the government can increase coal’s added value, get a multiplier effect, and reduce petroleum products imports.

The Indonesian Coal Roadmap also needs to consider related existing and planned regulations so that it does not cause conflicts in the future. In designing the roadmap, the government needs to involve relevant stakeholders, such as business entities, local governments and related associations.

The roadmap is expected not only to regulate coal business aspects but also to consider environmental aspects. The abandoned mine lands can be used for installing a solar farm, providing clean energy for the country. Meanwhile, the coal power plant is encouraged to use clean coal technology (CCT). CCT includes carbon capture storage (CCS), ultra-supercritical, and advanced ultra-supercritical technologies, reducing emissions from the coal power plant.

*Luky Yusgiantoro, Ph.D. A governing board member of The Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center (PYC).

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Engaging the ‘Climate’ Generation in Global Energy Transition

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photo: IRENA

Renewable energy is at the heart of global efforts to secure a sustainable future. Partnering with young people to amplify calls for the global energy transition is an essential part of this endeavour, as they represent a major driver of development, social change, economic growth, innovation and environmental protection. In recent years, young people have become increasingly involved in shaping the sustainable development discourse, and have a key role to play in propelling climate change mitigation efforts within their respective communities.

Therefore, how might we best engage this new generation of climate champions to accentuate their role in the ongoing energy transition? In short, engagement begins with information and awareness. Young people must be exposed to the growing body of knowledge and perspectives on renewable energy technologies and be encouraged to engage in peer-to-peer exchanges on the subject via new platforms.

To this end, IRENA convened the first IRENA Youth Forum in Abu Dhabi in January 2020, bringing together young people from more than 35 countries to discuss their role in accelerating the global energy transformation. The Forum allowed participants to take part in a truly global conversation, exchanging views with each other as well as with renewable energy experts and representatives from governments around the world, the private sector and the international community.

Similarly, the IRENA Youth Talk webinar, organised in collaboration with the SDG 7 Youth Constituency of the UN Major Group for Children and Youth, presented the views of youth leaders, to identify how young people can further the promotion of renewables through entrepreneurship that accelerates the energy transition.

For example, Joachim Tamaro’s experience in Kenya was shared in the Youth Talk, illustrating how effective young entrepreneurs can be as agents of change in their communities. He is currently working on the East Africa Geo-Aquacultural Development Project – a venture that envisages the use of solar energy to power refrigeration in rural areas that rely on fishing for their livelihoods. The project will also use geothermal-based steam for hatchery, production, processing, storage, preparation and cooking processes.

It is time for governments, international organisations and other relevant stakeholders to engage with young people like Joachim and integrate their contributions into the broader plan to accelerate the energy transition, address climate change and achieve the UN Sustainable Development Agenda.

Business incubators, entrepreneurship accelerators and innovation programmes can empower young people to take their initiatives further. They can give young innovators and entrepreneurs opportunities to showcase and implement their ideas and contribute to their communities’ economic and sustainable development. At the same time, they also allow them to benefit from technical training, mentorship and financing opportunities.

Governments must also engage young people by reflecting their views and perspectives when developing policies that aim to secure a sustainable energy future, not least because it is the youth of today who will be the leaders of tomorrow.

IRENA

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The Urgency of Strategic Petroleum Reserve (SPR) for Indonesia’s Energy Security

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Authors:Akhmad Hanan and Dr. Luky Yusgiantoro*

Indonesia is located in the Pacific Ring of Fire, which has great potential for natural disasters. These disasters have caused damage to energy infrastructure and casualties. Natural disasters usually cut the energy supply chain in an area, causing a shortage of fuel supply and power outages.

Besides natural disasters, energy crisis events occur mainly due to the disruption of energy supplies. This is because of the disconnection of energy facilities and infrastructure by natural disasters, criminal and terrorist acts, escalation in regional politics, rising oil prices, and others. With strategic national energy reserves, particularly strategic petroleum reserves (SPR), Indonesia can survive the energy crisis if it has.

Until now, Indonesia does not have an SPR. Meanwhile, fuel stocks owned by business entities such as PT Pertamina (Persero) are only categorized as operational reserves. The existing fuel stock can only guarantee 20 days of continuity. Whereas in theory, a country has secured energy security if it has a guaranteed energy supply with affordable energy prices, easy access for the people, and environmentally friendly. With current conditions, Indonesia still does not have guaranteed energy security.

Indonesian Law mandates that to ensure national energy security, the government is obliged to provide national energy reserves. This reserve can be used at any time for conditions of crisis and national energy emergencies. It has been 13 years since the energy law was issued, Indonesia does not yet have an SPR.

Lessons from other countries

Many countries in the world have SPR, and its function is to store crude oil and or fuel oil. SPR is built by many developed countries, especially countries that are members of the International Energy Agency (IEA). The IEA was formed due to the disruption of oil supply in the 1970s. To avoid the same thing happening again, the IEA has made a strategic decision by obliging member countries to keep in the SPR for 90 days.

As one of the member countries, the US has the largest SPR in the world. Its storage capacity reaches a maximum of 714 million barrels (estimated to equal 115 days of imports) to mitigate the impact of disruption in the supply of petroleum products and implement US obligations under the international energy program. The US’ SPR is under the control of the US Department of Energy and is stored in large underground salt caves at four locations along the Gulf of Mexico coastline.

Besides the US, Japan also has the SPR. Japan’s SPR capacity is 527 million barrels (estimated to equal 141 days of imports). SPR Japan priority is used for disaster conditions. For example, in 2011, when the nuclear reactor leak occurred at the Fukushima nuclear power plant due to the Tsunami, Japan must find an energy alternative. Consequently, Japan must replace them with fossil fuel power plants, mainly gas and oil stored in SPR.

China, Thailand, and India also have their own SPR. China has an SPR capacity of 400-900 million barrels, Thailand 27.6 million barrels, and India 37.4 million barrels. Singapore does not have an SPR. However, Singapore has operational reserve in the form of fuel stock for up to 90 days which is longer than Indonesia.

Indonesia really needs SPR

The biggest obstacles of developing SPR in Indonesia are budget availability, location selection, and the absence of any derivative regulations from the law. Under the law, no agency has been appointed and responsible for building and managing SPR. Also, government technical regulations regarding the existence and management of SPR in Indonesia is important.

The required SPR capacity in Indonesia can be estimated by calculating the daily consumption from the previous year. For 2019, the national average daily consumption of fuel is 2.6 million kiloliters per day. With the estimation of 90 days of imports, Indonesia’s SPR capacity must at least be more than 100 million barrels to be used in emergencies situations.

For selecting SPR locations, priority can be given to areas that have safe geological structures. East Kalimantan is suitable to be studied as an SPR placement area. It is also geologically safe from disasters and is also located in the middle of Indonesia. East Kalimantan has the Balikpapan oil refinery with the capacity of 260,000 BPD for SPR stock. For SPR funding solution, can use the state budget with a long-term program and designation as a national strategic project.

Another short-term solution for SPR is to use or lease existing oil tankers around the world that are not being used. Should the development of SPR be approved by the government, then the international shipping companies may be able to contribute to its development.

China currently dominates oil tanker shipping in the world, Indonesia can work with China to lease and become Indonesia’s SPR. Actually, this is a good opportunity at the time of the COVID-19 pandemic because oil prices are falling. It would be great if Indonesia could charter some oil tankers and buy fuel to use as SPR. This solution was very interesting while the government prepared long-term planning for the SPR facility. In this way, Indonesia’s energy security will be more secure.

*Dr. Luky Yusgiantoro, governing board member of The Purnomo Yusgiantoro Center (PYC).

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