Bitcoin's Exorbitant Energy Costs May Prove to Be Biggest Risk

  • Citigroup says long-term consumption comparable to Japan
  • Shift in network model seen as key to cryptocurrency’s future
Bitcoin’s meteoric rise is attracting a ton of attention. Is it ready for the mainstream?

It may not matter whether bitcoin’s a bubble. The staggering energy costs associated with “mining” the digital currency could prove to be its downfall.

Even as bitcoin flirts with $8,000, the price required for mining to be marginally profitable stands at a jaw-dropping $300,000 to $1.5 million by 2022 based on current growth trends and electricity use, according to Christopher Chapman, an analyst at Citigroup Inc. At that pace, the implied consumption would match that for the whole of Japan over the long haul.

“We don’t think that those levels of mining can be reached, and that governments will regulate/tax miners as a way of reducing the power consumption,” Chapman said in an email Thursday.

Mining, combined with the peer-to-peer network, known as the blockchain, form the backbone of the virtual currency, facilitating transactions and maintaining the online ledger for coins in the system. Miners, in turn, are rewarded for taking part, under what is known as a proof-of-work system.

They have faced an uphill battle in procuring the virtual currency in recent years as the number of bitcoin awarded is reduced amid rising costs and breakneck competition, which has intensified amid the growing clout of virtual currencies on Wall Street. The pace of creation is limited, and no more than 21 million will ever be issued.

QuickTake on bitcoin and blockchain

Those challenges have sparked calls for a shift to a proof-of-stake model, which would permit users to mine and validate transactions as a proportion of their underlying ownership of the digital currency. That would undercut the current system of rewarding miners with the most computing power, say proponents.

There’s no direct way to measure the power consumed in the process. But the analyst reckons the exponential growth of mining calculations notched on the network -- a boon for providers of semiconductors and electricity -- suggests the mining community is projecting dizzying and unsustainable highs in the bitcoin price.

"As the current arms race is not in the interests of established miners we think that the BTC network may move to a proof-of-stake model; particularly if such a change is implemented by major rival ethereum," Chapman wrote in a Nov. 7 note. "Such a move would not be uncontentious, but may be necessary for the survival of the currency."

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