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New research estimates that by the end of 2018, bitcoin mining could consume as much as half a percent of annual worldwide electricity — enough to power Austria.
For perspective, that would be the power from one of every eight wind turbines on the planet, or one-third of global solar power capacity. It could run more than 6 million average U.S. homes, or all of New York City for more than a year.
Bitcoin's vast power appetite is thanks to mining, where computers crunch complex math problems for a reward of more bitcoins. As more miners try to solve the problems, the difficulty of the computations — and therefore the amount of power required — increases.
And this great financial experiment isn't all powered with renewable energy. It's responsible for more than 30 megatons of annual carbon emissions right now — equivalent to more than 7 million cars on the road, or about 1 million transatlantic flights.
The good news for the environment is that bitcoin is a scarce resource, and its algorithm rewards fewer coins as time goes on. By 2140, there'll be no rewards left and no reason to run power-hungry mining computers.
It's hard to say whether bitcoin will soak up energy until then or if it will start to taper off. It's expensive to run mining operations, but as long as the price of bitcoin is high enough, people will keep mining.
If it stays profitable, researchers say bitcoin could eventually be responsible for 5 percent of global energy usage — which could run every data center in the U.S. right now.