With careful planning and a spirit of innovation, Bitcoin mining can play a major role in tackling climate change by using landfill methane.
By Adam Wright
The rise of cryptocurrency has sparked intense public scrutiny of the environmental impacts of Bitcoin mining—especially the greenhouse gas emissions associated with increased energy consumption. As an environmentalist, Bitcoin miner, and entrepreneur, I share those concerns. The science is clear: to ensure a livable future, humanity must decarbonize and transition to cleaner energy sources as quickly as possible, while continuing to meet growing power demand across all economic sectors.
The debate over Bitcoin mining is reverberating throughout society, including the halls of Congress, which has already held hearings on the associated environmental impacts. In August, Democrats on the House Energy and Commerce Committee wrote to four major crypto-mining companies seeking answers on how they mitigate the environmental effects of their operations and what steps are being taken to ensure they do not overstrain the electric grid or undercut U.S. climate goals. These are valid and important questions that are also relevant to virtually every facet of our society.
However, here is a counter perspective: Bitcoin mining can actually be part of the solution to climate change—and not just at some distant future juncture, but right now.
The EPA estimates that landfills account for 17 percent of U.S. methane emissions—a potent greenhouse gas that traps 80 times as much heat in the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. One solution captures this landfill gas at the source and uses it to power highly efficient microturbines that in turn power satellite-linked servers dedicated to Bitcoin mining.
You may be asking, why Bitcoin mining? Why not put this power on the grid? The most popular methods of capturing and converting landfill methane into energy—producing either electricity or natural gas—requires expensive infrastructure, years of planning and a pipeline or grid connection. This just does not pencil-out for most developers and the planet cannot afford the time. Bitcoin mining provides an economical and scalable way to eliminate harmful landfill methane emissions and turn them into a new, immediate revenue stream for cash-strapped municipalities while providing an economic bridge to eventually powering onsite vehicle charging and grid-interconnection.
Because of the exorbitant costs of building infrastructure to either refine this methane into a usable gas or transmit it to the electric grid, 72 percent of U.S. landfills do not have an economically viable way to use this extremely harmful gas. Landfill methane is either released directly into the atmosphere or flared—a process that is both costly and wasteful.
Using this otherwise wasted energy to power Bitcoin mining is actually a carbon negative process. Unlike most climate-mitigation solutions, the technology is immediately deployable using gas microturbines that are the cleanest burning and have the lowest emissions of any on the market. A single 1.5 megawatt (MW) unit, intended for a small landfill, mitigates 287,000 metric tons of CO2 equivalent annually.
This approach—which will launch at a pilot site in central California this year—also provides a near-term revenue stream for local municipal landfills. Additional uses for what is essentially an off-grid source of clean energy just waiting to be tapped are also being explored, with EV charging stations for electric garbage trucks, municipal buses, and other heavy-duty vehicles as one promising option for future use. Considering the tremendous need for distributed EV charging infrastructure and the tsunami of demand that the EV transition will put on the grid, carbon-negative off-grid charging would be a game changer.
This innovation comes at a key moment as EPA is poised to crack down on methane emissions from landfills nationwide. By 2025, an estimated 731 existing landfills are expected to achieve compliance with new regulations. Mitigation plans will either be approved, or federal plans will be imposed on sites that will require municipalities to add costly equipment to increase the capture and flaring of methane 32 percent. Rather than having to pay for mitigation, municipalities are paid for the electricity generated.
There are no upfront costs to a municipality or landfill operator. Vespene Energy fully capitalizes all the development costs and pays a fee to the landfill for the right to use the landfill gas. This fee can be in the form of a direct fixed payment per btu of gas consumed, or it can be a revenue share bounded with a guaranteed minimum payment.
To get started, a landfill would have to provide a gas report that details the quality of the gas as well as the flow rate and percentage of methane. That information will be used to provide a formal offer to purchase gas from the landfill. If that is accepted, drafting and executing formal agreements will be next steps, and the site can be erected and generating revenues within four to six months. The landfill will maintain its existing operations/maintenance of the gas collection system and of the flaring infrastructure as a backup solution for methane destruction during scheduled maintenance of the power generation equipment. Vespene Energy can also help install gas collection systems if none are currently in place.
Society needs to closely examine the climate impacts of everything that we do—including mining cryptocurrency—with the goal of doing everything possible to change the trajectory of atmospheric greenhouse gas concentrations. With careful planning and a spirit of innovation, Bitcoin mining can play a major role in tackling climate change by using landfill methane to do just that. | WA
Adam Wright is CEO of Vespene Energy, a Berkeley, CA-based methane mitigation company. A mechanical engineer by training, Adam is a seasoned management executive with more than 15 years of experience building and growing companies across a variety of fields including 3D printing, ocean engineering, real estate, and Bitcoin mining. Prior to co-founding Vespene Energy in 2022, Adam was Director of Manufacturing for Mantle, Inc., a 3D printing company developing a new way to print high-precision metal components. Adam also spent six years as CEO of DeepFlight, a marine technology manufacturer that, under Adam’s leadership, expanded to become a global provider of personal and tourism submarines. He can be reached at [email protected].