At a remote farm set in idyllic countryside in north-west Wales, a farmer is taking advantage of the huge amounts of manure his cows and sheep churn out daily to cash in on the craze for crypto coins.
Instead of relying solely on his biofuel plant to create renewable energy for the National Grid, Philip Hughes has a much more lucrative plan for his animals' "cow muck": he uses it to power computers that mine digital coins such as Ethereum.
The biofuel process uses a six-cylinder engine that turns methane emitted from the decomposing manure into electricity in a process called anaerobic digestion.
While two thirds of the electricity produced helps to power his farm and adjoining caravan park, the rest powers specialist computers known as mining rigs.
Josh Riddett, 30, founder of Easy Crypto Hunter, in Manchester, which supplies mining rigs like the one Mr Hughes uses, said more than 40 British farmers who produce renewable energy, including wind, hydro, solar and bio-fuel, now have one of his kits.
"Farming is becoming harder and harder in the UK, so farmers are actively looking to make other incomes … and sometimes setting up a dairy ice cream shop is not an option," Mr Riddett told The National.
“Mr Hughes already had the renewable energy site running and he was looking for ways to monetise it because those sites cost millions of pounds and it would take years for him to get his money back. So, if he can actively do something to make more money from the electricity he's generating, that's very helpful.”
Mr Riddett, who set up his business in 2017, has sold about 1,000 computers across the UK and overseas and said he would happily supply the Middle East market if the demand were there.
The financial potential of mining crypto
The powerful rigs, the size of a suitcase, verify crypto transactions in a process that produces newly minted coins with the majority bought by investors or people simply looking to earn extra income.
However, renewable energy farmers like Mr Hughes are sensing the financial potential of mining for crypto.
While farmers used to earn “attractive subsidies” by selling the renewable electricity they produce from biofuel, solar power or wind turbines back to the National Grid, these have dwindled over the past few years.
“Now, if you want to build a solar panel farm, you'd struggle to make the numbers work. It's not necessarily financially viable,” Mr Riddett said.
“At the moment, a farmer might get five or six pence per kilowatt of electric, whereas if you take that one kilowatt and run it through one of my machines, you might end up earning £1 or £1.50 per kilowatt, so it's a huge uplift.”
For Mr Hughes, whose family have worked on his farm for generations, mining Ethereum is hardly the natural next step, but he described it as a profitable enterprise that has delivered a good return and provides “a bit of fun”.
Anyone with a power source can buy a rig
A rig, which costs £18,000, can mine about 800 digital currencies but Mr Riddett’s kit does not focus on Bitcoin because the rewards from the other coins are “more profitable and more energy efficient”.
While renewable energy is one way to power the machines, anyone with a source of electricity can buy one.
“It literally just needs a plug socket and an internet connection and it would add about £180 a month to your electricity bill,” Mr Riddett said.
"But if you do produce your own power, then obviously your electric bill is going to be a little bit cheaper.”
The amount miners earn depends on the value of the coin, with current profits about £1,500 to £2,000 a month, although the figure was as high as £3,000 earlier in the year.
The value of Ethereum, which doesn’t attract as much media attention as Bitcoin, has risen more than 800 per cent to $1,780 over the past year with highs of more than $3,000 last month and analysts expecting it to reach $5,000.
While Mr Hughes, who bought the kit two years ago, realises his business produces an asset, the value of which can fluctuate sharply on a single remark by Elon Musk, he is ready put the rigs' computing power to other uses should the market collapse.
"The components of these machines are physically worth a lot of money. So, even if hypothetically Bitcoin went to zero tomorrow, you still own all the physical equipment which has its place outside of the crypto world,” Mr Riddett said.
The farmer has taken the process one step further, leasing out his renewable energy to 50 rig owners.
“We have a hosting site at Philip’s farm where some of our clients who don’t want a machine in their house might opt to host that machine and pay a monthly fee,” Mr Riddett said.
He said his clients include lawyers, police officers and doctors, as well as property investors or high net-worth individuals looking to earn additional income.
“We build the kit, show people how to use it and give them that independence. Rather than spending all your money on some type of coin, we give people the option to buy the actual hardware that sits underneath all of this crypto. So, you can kind of mine lots of different coins and get involved in the creation of it all,” Mr Riddett said.
The cost to the climate of the crypto mining industry
The scheme is not without its critics – the crypto mining business consumes vast amounts of energy.
A single transaction of Bitcoin, for example, has the same carbon footprint as 680,000 Visa transactions or 51,210 hours of watching YouTube, Cambridge’s Centre for Alternative Finances said.
The creators of Ethereum, considered the second most popular crypto, said they would change the currency’s algorithm to make its mining more environmentally friendly.
While environmentalists might argue that the renewable energy powering crypto mining machines is not helping the planet, Yanislav Malahov, a crypto and blockchain technology expert known as the Godfather of Ethereum, said product was the problem, not electricity consumption.
"We need to find better ways of producing green electricity and moving away from the era of the fossil fuels. Cryptocurrencies might be very instrumental to essentially fund such new energy production systems and move into this new era," Mr Malahov said at a global trade webinar earlier this week.
Mr Riddett said his concept was triggering an increase in renewable energy investment.
“Because the multiplier of the return is so attractive, it's making people build new green energy sites and is an independent way of financing new green energy locations and expanding existing locations to which you might only have 20 or 30 per cent of the whole power of that new site used on crypto," he said.
“That covers all the money that you need to run the site, while the remaining power in there makes it to the grid. So, as a net enterprise, there's a really attractive environmental angle because it's the financial mechanism behind creating new green energy sites, which wouldn't have been financed otherwise.”
Mr Riddett said 95 per cent of his clients had never before been involved in crypto but they were interested in alternative investments.
Ultimately, as Mr Hughes said: "It’s a lot easier to run a computer than a herd of cows or a flock of sheep."