Going nuclear: how the future of cryptocurrency mining is playing out in rural America

Bitcoin miners have vowed to go net zero by 2030 and are looking for new ways to do it

Riot Blockchain's Whinstone Bitcoin mining facility in rural Rockdale, Texas. EPA
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An unassuming former paper mill in the foothills of eastern Appalachia is buzzing with a new kind of activity these days: dozens of shipping containers full of computers now populate the facility, all of them mining cryptocurrency.

Standard Power, a utility company, opened the site located in Coshocton, Ohio, last year. The town is better known for being a prime deer hunting destination than for advanced data processing facilities – but that may be about to change.

Cryptocurrency miners have long been criticised for their environmental impact, with mining's “proof of work” computational operations requiring vast amounts of energy.

A single Bitcoin transaction requires as much energy as a typical US household uses in 73 days, according to The New York Times. The largest cryptocurrency mine in the US, located in Texas, uses as much electricity as three million households.

But nuclear energy could be the solution to this problem.

This month, Standard Power announced a deal with NuScale, a nuclear power company, to run two data centres in Ohio and neighbouring Pennsylvania with “two small modular reactors” that would produce 2 gigawatts of clean energy.

“I think nuclear energy is the next frontier for power in communities generally speaking. It’s one of the cleanest and greenest energy sources we have,” says Andrew Burchwell of the Ohio Blockchain Council.

“Nuclear is going to be one of the safest energy sources we have, and we should be leaning into it.”

In a ground-breaking move earlier this year, America’s first nuclear-powered Bitcoin-mining facility opened in Pennsylvania.

Cumulus Data launched a zero-carbon data centre facility in the north-eastern part of the state that, when fully operational, is expected to produce 475 megawatts of energy for Bitcoin miner TeraWulf.

“The Nautilus nuclear-powered mining facility benefits from what is arguably the lowest cost power in the sector,” TeraWulf chief executive Paul Prager said in March.

Cryptocurrency mining is becoming more prevalent in parts of rural America.

From Hardin, Montana – population 3,685 – to Rockdale, Texas – population 5,398 – and many towns in between, cryptocurrency mining companies have been lured to small American towns by a potent mix of cheap electricity, lax zoning regulations and China's 2021 crackdown on cryptocurrency miners.

Cryptocurrency miners have vowed to get to net zero by 2030 and until now, some mining outfits have mitigated their carbon footprint by buying carbon offsets through forestry projects or methane capture efforts.

Many cryptocurrencies such as SolarCoin and Powerledger have gone down the sustainability route in a bid to attract environmentally conscious customers and investors.

Currently, the Coshocton mine is run on shale natural gas. Massive gas reserves unlocked by fracking in recent years mean electricity is cheap in Appalachian Ohio.

What’s more, Ohio is seen by some as a good place for Bitcoin mining in part because of its climate.

“Computers don’t like hot temperatures, so Ohio is a pretty pleasant place to host them,” says Mr Burchwell.

Still, others, such as stock analysts, have sought to throw cold water over the Standard Power-NuScale Power deal, suggesting financing and other barriers could be an issue for both parties.

NuScale Power responded by stating such claims are “riddled with speculative statements with no basis in fact”.

What is Bitcoin and how did it start? – video

What is Bitcoin and how did it start?

What is Bitcoin and how did it start?

“The cost of nuclear power is generally relatively high, which is not the best match for an industry that has to keep electricity costs as low as possible to merely ensure survival,” says Alex de Vries, a researcher at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam in the Netherlands.

Even casting aside the potential of nuclear to turn cryptocurrency mining into a clean process, Mr De Vries believes the broader benefits of cryptocurrency mining for small American communities are questionable.

“There are very little benefits to having these miners in your backyard,” he says. “Just like generic data centres, they return an insignificant amount of jobs for the electricity consumed and it also does not help to attract businesses.”

That hasn’t stopped a growing number of rural American communities from going down the mining road.

Some parts of the US have seen mining facilities add tens of millions of dollars to local tax coffers, some of which has been passed on to residents through tax cuts.

In total, about 20 public mining companies are thought to be in operation, many in small, rural pockets of the country, producing 4.25 gigawatts of mining and hosting capacity.

For Sam Bell, who lives directly across the street from the Coshocton cryptocurrency mine, the noticeable humming of the fans used to cool the computers is not a major issue.

“Before it opened, there was another factory there, so the noise I hear today is probably the same as before,” he says.

“It is what it is.”

Mr Bell says he doesn't know a lot about the facility but he hasn't seen his electricity bill increase since it opened, as has happened in other locations.

Proponents of America’s new cryptocurrency drive say the technology can serve as an entryway for more modern development in what many regard as forgotten parts of America.

About 13 kilometres south of Coshocton, a massive coal-fired power plant in Conesville that closed in 2020 is set to reopen as an industrial park that would include a large Standard Power facility, according to local media.

“You have a lot of ageing infrastructure and rural areas that are looking for ways to spur economic activity. We believe that Bitcoin mining is a scrappy way to go into these communities and build up infrastructure,” says Mr Burchwell.

“Bringing an economy to that same site results in the same types of tax revenue. In that way, there’s a local economic benefit that occurs.”

Updated: November 03, 2023, 6:00 PM