Bulletin: Battle over geothermal project pits tiny toad against renewable energy

Dixie Meadows is a smudge of vibrant green in an otherwise muted pink and tan landscape. To travel there from Fallon, Nevada, the nearest city, one must first drive 40 miles east on US Route 50, a stretch of highway known as the “loneliest road in America,” and then another 40 miles north on a gravel road into Dixie Valley, a low-lying plain between the Stillwater Range and the Clan Alpine Mountains. Desert shrubs extend as far as the eye can see, until a shimmer of water appears on the horizon—the first sign of a desert oasis. Fed by a series of over 100 seeps and springs, these 760 lush acres at the foot of the Stillwater mountains encompass the entire global range of the endangered Dixie Valley toad. They are also a “surface expression,” as geologists put it, of an as-yet untapped geothermal energy source.

Wearing a straw cowboy hat and using a wooden staff as a walking stick, Patrick Donnelly leads the way into Dixie Meadows’ shoulder-high reeds, where we hope to find the smallest of the western toads. As the Great Basin director of the Center for Biological Diversity, Donnelly campaigned to get the Dixie Valley toad listed as endangered, which the Fish and Wildlife Service did in April on an emergency basis for only the second time in the past 20 years. Donnelly has also worked tirelessly to halt the progress of the largest threat to the Dixie Valley toad and the green oasis it calls home: the Dixie Meadows Geothermal Project. Donnelly is concerned that if the geothermal project proceeds as planned, it will disturb or even dry up the series of hot springs that have created this verdant oasis.

Read more…

The geothermal moonshot

Many experts believe the future of geothermal energy lies in enhanced geothermal systems, which lack some of the natural characteristics needed to produce electricity from the Earth’s heat but may be used as geothermal energy sources with the right human interventions. Proper development of enhanced systems would drastically expand the potential for geothermal energy’s role in the US energy system.

Read more…

Bulletin: Casino gambles on geothermal—and wins big

Using geothermal fluid in heating and cooling systems can help big institutions, like universities, city governments, and even upscale resorts save money and reduce their carbon footprint. The geothermal system at the Peppermill Reno Resort paid for itself in three years, two years faster than expected.

Read more…

Bulletin: A Ukrainian climate expert on the Zaporizhzhia situation and the winter energy outlook

Fear over a possible nuclear disaster at the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Ukraine rose this week, as both Russia and Ukraine warned that the other side could be planning a “false-flag” attack. Russian forces—currently in control of the plant—have ordered many of the Ukrainian workers who continue to run and operate the plant to stay home from work; only those workers who work on the power units themselves have been allowed on the premises, according to Ukraine’s state-run energy firm, Energoatom.

Earlier this month, the European Union and the United States called for Zaporizhzhia and the surrounding area to be demilitarized, but Russia has rejected the suggestion, saying it would make the plant “even more vulnerable.”

Oleh Savitskyi, a board member of the non-governmental organization Ecoaction and a climate and energy policy expert with the Ukrainian Climate Network who worked in the ministry of energy and environment protection of Ukraine until June, has been following the situation closely. The Bulletin reached Savitskyi by phone in Kyiv earlier this week to discuss the escalating situation at Zaporizhzhia, what happens if the plant goes offline, and the outlook for Ukraine’s energy supply in the coming months and years.

Read more…

Bulletin: How bitcoin makes burning fossil fuels more profitable than ever

The road to the village of Dresden, New York, on Seneca Lake’s western shore, is lined with wineries. Neat rows of spindly grape vines cover the rolling hills as far as the eye can see. Deepest of the state’s Finger Lakes, this long and narrow water body warms the region in winter and cools it in summer—making for an ideal microclimate for viticulture, and a popular tourist destination.

Just as the road drops down to the village, an old power plant looms. Behind the chain link fence and “Posted” signs thrum thousands of computer servers, or miners; by September they will number close to 50,000 (Greenidge 2022). This is where a new industry has taken root, alarming climate activists around the country: bitcoin mining.

Greenidge Generation first came online as a coal-fired plant in 1937, but by 2011, like so many other coal plants, it was no longer profitable. The owners shut it down, presumably for good, and declared bankruptcy. But a few years later, a private investment firm acquired the plant and converted it to gas, only to find selling energy to the grid still wasn’t very profitable (Christensen 2019) Since coming back online in 2017, Greenidge has sent very little energy to the grid. In fact, since 2020, instead of powering people’s homes and businesses, most of the energy the plant produces has been used to mine the digital cryptocurrency bitcoin.

In March 2020, the plant was using 14 megawatts of power to mine bitcoin (Kharif 2020); by October 2021, it was up to 45 megawatts (Greenidge 2021a). The company plans to use 85 of the plant’s 106-megawatt capacity to mine bitcoins by the end of the year.

It is now well understood that bitcoin mining uses vast amounts of energy. Alex de Vries, one of the leading experts on bitcoin and energy, estimates that the network uses 204.50 terawatt hours annually, about as much as Thailand. A more conservative estimate by the Cambridge Center for Alternative Finance puts it closer to 115.4 terawatt hours, or more than the Netherlands.

Bitcoin’s electricity guzzling has increased dramatically in the past decade. In 2021, de Vries said energy usage had roughly doubled since 2017 to between 78 terawatt hours and 101 terawatt hours (Bambrough 2021), and his current estimate means that the network’s energy usage doubled again in little over a year.

Climate activists see Greenidge as a canary in a coal plant; if one retired fossil fuel plant can be brought back to life to mine bitcoin, what is to prevent the same thing from happening at other retired or idle plants? Other companies have already made moves to follow Greenidge’s lead—including mining companies making moves to buy power plants, and energy companies looking to get into bitcoin.

Bitcoin is giving new life to fossil fuels in even more insidious ways. In some places, miners are burning the dirtiest of dirty fuels—waste coal—to mine bitcoin, and they don’t only have the state’s blessing: They’re getting subsidies for it. Some of the biggest companies have started using the gas that escapes during the oil drilling process to mine bitcoin, claiming it mitigates their climate impact. Even more alarming, some companies are trucking in mobile generators and miners directly to stranded gas wells and burning fossil fuels that otherwise would have stayed in the ground to power miners on site.

If the first decade of bitcoin’s existence was characterized by the mad rush for cheap power, the second looks to be dominated by fossil fuel companies whose assets are quickly depreciating—in terms of both financial and cultural capital—desperate to wring out a bit more profit while they still can.

Read more…