Several local publications recently printed another public relations statement by Greenidge Generation. The bitcoin mining operator along the western shore of Seneca Lake in Dresden is trying hard to convince the community that its business model is a net benefit for the region — that is, burning massive amounts of fossil fuels and discharging oceans of heated water into Seneca Lake to ultimately power banks of computers to produce bitcoin.
The company says that the carbon offsets it has purchased make it the “first fully carbon-neutral bitcoin mining operation of its kind in the United States.” What Greenidge won’t mention, is that under New York state’s Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act, stationary electric sources like power plants cannot avail themselves of offsets; they are not a substitute under state law in moving us to a cleaner, carbon-neutral future.
Greenidge also does not say that purchasing these offsets doesn’t negate the fact that this power plant will continue to pump out hundreds of thousands of tons of nitrous oxide, methane, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide annually (all potent greenhouse gases) for the foreseeable future. These and other greenhouse gases are widely recognized to be the source of the climatic woes across the planet, which we have been seeing in real time in the form of wildfires, floods and record-breaking heat waves.
In our own backyard, the impacts have manifested in increased lake temperatures, higher rates of algal blooms, higher humidity levels, warmer nights, torrential downpours and increases in invasive pests. These symptoms of a rapidly changing climate are destabilizing the world’s economic, social, and cultural future. Without immediate action the costs to societies near and far will spiral out of control.
What Greenidge doesn’t like explaining is that repurposing an inefficient power plant to make “proof of work” bitcoin is a very clever, under-the-radar, “behind the meter” scheme that is turning huge profits, while disproportionately exploiting and extracting our natural resources. Proof of work, in fact, is the most energy-intensive form of cryptocurrency; many forms of cryptocurrency require only a fraction of its energy. Taking Greenidge’s PR spin at face value without considering the long-term environmental, economic and health impacts isn’t a bet we should be taking on the future of an already compromised Seneca Lake watershed.
Another issue Greenidge does not like to bring up is its open-loop cooling system. This antiquated method is just what it sounds like: Cool lake water is drawn into the plant (along with schools of aquatic life) and warmer water is then discharged into our already warming lake. While it’s beyond reprehensible that the DEC has not insisted Greenidge install a closed-loop cooling system, which would dramatically reduce the warming and the fish kills, Greenidge has decided not to invest its much publicized mining profits into remediating this major stressor on our lake’s ecology. Until the DEC gets up the gumption and requires Greenidge to make these long-overdue upgrades, the lake will continue to suffer.
If Greenidge really loves Seneca Lake, as the company purports in its publicity, the $1.5 million netted weekly could go a long way to installing a closed-loop cooling system.
In another recent press release, Greenidge claims it is investing profits from its bitcoin mining operation to expedite the closure of its inherited 40-year-old coal ash landfill and put a 5 megawatt solar farm atop this toxic site (Greenidge’s own mining operation plans to use up to 85 megawatts). While in theory this sounds like a win-win, this action is in fact a decree from the DEC to remediate the site. The announced proposal to put a solar farm on top of the landfill is not consistent with the closure plan the landfill prepared in 2019. See https://lockwoodhillsllc.com/wp-content/uploads/2019/08/Closure-Plan-Final-8-14-2019.pdf.
The plan gives detailed explanations and diagrams for a final cover design to minimize infiltration of precipitation into the waste mass, and to minimize erosion, thereby preventing exposure of the underlying waste to the environment. It is difficult to imagine how installing footings for a solar farm could comply with these requirements, especially considering that arsenic levels have exceeded EPA standards at several monitoring wells around the landfill between 2013 and 2016 (ashtracker.org). It is critical that the DEC requires this toxic site to be cleaned up properly, not rushed and capped and called a solar farm without taking the necessary steps to protect groundwater and the Keuka Outlet.
In addition, the public needs to insist that the DEC stop slow-walking the thermal and dilution studies they promised years ago, require wedge wire screen installation and install the closed-loop cooling system. Greenidge’s Title V Air Permit is also coming up for renewal in September; the public will have a chance to comment in writing or in person as to whether Greenidge should continue to be permitted to release up to 641,878 tons of carbon dioxide equivalent annually.
While it seems to some people that Greenidge is just a drop in the global bucket of environmental threats, the truth is that bitcoin mining is most likely here to stay on Seneca Lake, across New York state and beyond. The Greenidge model is already being replicated around the state, and if regulators and policymakers don’t get a handle on its environmental impacts this runaway train will only exacerbate the environmental crisis. So while we may not be burning down like many West Coast communities, or on the verge of being swamped by the oceans like many coastal cities and island nations, or suffer from a lack of potable water like millions of people face around the globe, we cannot be complacent and shortsighted in recognizing that we all have a moral obligation to stem the risks to our shared air and water for future generations. At the end of the day, we’re all in this together.
For more information and statistics on the bitcoin industry, check out this link: https://www.fractracker.org/2021/08/the-world-is-watching-as-bitcoin-battle-brews-in-the-us/.