Bitcoin Scoops Up Stranded and Excess Power

Physical representation of Bitcoin superimposed on power transmission lines.

Electricity has the difficult characteristic of having to be consumed whenever it’s produced. Storing it, for instance in batteries, is a costly technological endeavor. For most of its 150-odd year history, electricity grids had good control over supply — crank up the dials, burn more fuel, run more turbines — but had to forecast the demand, always anticipating and micromanaging ever-so-slight changes in usage.

Some patterns are simple enough. We consume more electricity in the mornings and early evenings than during the middle of the night, more electricity during a dark, cold winter day than a mild spring day. (California’s Duck curve is a beautiful illustration.) Then there are the occasional odd quirks, like millions of households simultaneously turning on their kettles during the commercial breaks of the Super Bowl, or some other event drawing enough eyeballs to put us in spontaneous sync. We still expect the grid to deliver, always, and so grid operators must make sure that there is more capacity at the ready at a moment’s notice — which often means running some turbines without load engaged — and with plenty more to turn on when the weather forecast suggests bad conditions.

That’s expensive, and pretty wasteful. Grids must be able to deliver a lot more power than they do at any given time. They must have a lot more capacity available than in use, and run inefficiently — the technical term being “overbuilt” — often by more than 50 percent. 

But somebody must still carry the financial cost of all that capacity and fuel storage and, depending on local energy policy (read: haggling and political grandstanding), it all gets squeezed into the rates consumers pay. Instantly, electricity is more expensive — even more so when we include renewables, counterintuitively enough. When we add large portions of wind and solar to the grid, occasionally flooding the grid with so much abundant electricity that power prices turn negative, the sum total becomes more expensive electricity, not less.

The reason is that those massive wind towers and PV parks blanketing the landscape produce too much electricity usually when we don’t need it, and next to nothing when we really do. The profound changes most Western societies have made to their grid in the name of “green energy” have done nothing but add costs. Green is additive and expensive, not cheap and improving.

Lots of additional production in a system with instantaneous consumption and without storage quickly runs into hard limits. We also expect the system to have perfect upkeep, so excess electricity must be curtailed… and then the wind mellows, the sun sets, and mostly fossil-fuel-burning baseload facilities must come back online — the stop-and-go behavior operating those plants making them suboptimally useful. We make the supply less predictable, and as a result have to duplicate plant facilities to ensure uptime.

A long-read by five Bloomberg journalists this month (“Wind Farms Are Overstating Their Output — And Consumers Are Paying For It”) show how energy commentary, when not inundating us in climate doomsday scenarios, still manage to bark up the wrong tree:

These extra costs are linked to a growing problem with Britain’s outdated electricity network: On blustery days, too much wind power risks overloading the system, and the grid operator must respond by paying some firms not to generate. This ‘curtailment’ — costs consumers hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

Sure, by overestimating production individual producers may unfairly fatten their own margins at the expense of ratepayers and taxpayers, but the process is unavoidable in grids with serious excess capacity: we must overbuild; overbuilding means extra cost, which somebody pays for.

What if there were an electricity user, a consumer-of-last-resort, that could scoop up any excess electricity, that could disengage at a moment’s notice if and when the grid needs that power for the occasional shortfall or cold snap, that could co-locate with the power plants and thus avoid extra transmission lines for its large-scale production purposes?

Added benefit, this consumer will pay the plants for the electricity they use that otherwise would have just gone to waste or idling on stand-by, producing non-economic energy output. That extra revenue could make power plant constructions financially viable, paying its way right off the bat. We could use installed capacity better, waste less resources, remove some of consumers’ requirement to shoulder overbuilt capex expenses that are only needed in extreme events. That consumer-of-last-resort could secure electricity grids and monetize their resilience.

Bitcoin is an awesome monetary technology, revolutionizing the world of money and assets and savings one skeptic at a time. In its wake, we find all sorts of beneficial second-order effects — improving the electricity grid and vacuuming up stranded worldwide energy just being the latest one. “Bitcoin miners are the economically perfect consumers of electricity,” concludes Lee Bratcher for Bitcoin Magazine, “their consistent consumption incentivizes the buildout of additional generation.”

During the winter storm Finn in January, upward of a quarter of Bitcoin hashrate went offline, since a lot of global hashpower now resides in Texas, which uses various load-shedding and demand-response programs with the grid manager ERCOT.

Hashing, the electricity-intensive cryptographic process that mining equipment run to find and confirm new blocks, is a random process. That means turning on and shutting off miners don’t harm miners’ progress the way that such sudden switch-offs would in data centers or other large-scale users like energy-intensive manufacturing. When conditions normalize, the miner can pick up hashing at the front of Bitcoin’s blockchain, with nothing lost but the upkeep time — which the demand-response program reimburses them for or which gets reflected in the price negotiated between miners and power plants. 

Before bitcoin, demand-response programs were neat little ideas that never seemed to work. As Meredith Angwin concludes in her book Shorting the Grid: “You can offer to pay customers to give up electricity on very cold days. However, very few will take your offer.” The reason that the grid is strained during a cold snap is the same reason power users place a very high value on their electricity use: The supply gets squeezed precisely at the time demand becomes price inelastic, heating and lighting homes or using other electrical machinery. Bitcoin miners derive their revenue from a global market, entirely uncorrelated with short-term, local electricity demands and weather patterns. Shutting off — in effect returning power to the grid when that power temporarily becomes more valuable for use elsewhere — is a simple and economically sound process. Bitcoin mining, far from being unnecessary drivers of climate change, is the missing puzzle piece that stabilizes volatile green energy and makes solar and wind power work for us instead of against us.