Zach Sibley, MJLST Staffer
Traditionally, miners enjoyed a position on the supply side of energy production, providing energy inputs like coal that power the grid. The cryptocurrency boom during the last decade, however, has given rise to a new type of “miner” that turns this relationship on its head. Mining for cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin and Ethereum is not providing energy inputs but rather adding a new, massive load to the power grid. Bitcoin globally consumes an estimated 54.88 terawatt hours (TWh) of electricity annual, while Ethereum comes in at 15.74 TWh per year. For comparison, mid-sized countries like Denmark—home to over 5.7 million people—consume approximately 31.5 TWh per year.
And like the miners of old, these new miners are flocking to rural American cities and towns. Rather than gold or coal deposits, though, these cryptominers are searching for something more valuable: low energy bills. And rural areas in Washington state and New York running primarily on hydroelectric power are the new goldmines. The influx of new technology—and its high energy demand—now inevitably clashes with the simpler, energy-cheap lifestyle these rural Americans once enjoyed. Now locals are pushing back, leaning on local governments, energy utilities, and public utility commissions to respond.
The energy consumers who resided in these areas prior to the cryptocurrency boom fear that all these new loads will require new grid infrastructure investments, incurring capital costs that would be spread across all ratepayers. These concerns have been mitigated to a degree by large hook-up fees charged to new cryptomining operations, but such efforts likely do not fully insulate the prior residents and businesses from upgrade expenses. The concerns stem from constant fluctuation in cryptocurrency pricing, which can lead to two detrimental effects on non-mining residents’ energy bills.
First, when the value of cryptocurrencies are high, in increase in transactions creates a high demand for mining. Miners may push the limits of current infrastructure capacity or spike demand peaks faster than the local energy utilities plan for or more rapid than they can get generation assets online to handle. Unanticipated spikes require distribution utilities to purchase power from “spot markets,” which is often a double or triple digit multiplier compared to their normal generation expenses. These measures also fail to protect residents from footing the bill if the cryptocurrency boom becomes a bust. If prices dip low enough for long enough, bankruptcies and sudden departures of cryptomining operations leave remaining residents and business to pay the costs of stranded assets.
Concerned over the local effects of a volatile commercial cryptomining industry, the mayor of Plattsburgh, New York introduced an 18-month local moratorium on commercial cryptomining operations in the city’s common council. If passed, the moratorium will test constitutional challenges based on the Fifth Amendment’s substantive due process jurisprudence or its regulatory takings jurisprudence. It is likely that substantive due process claims will fail because the moratorium is substantively justified, i.e. reasonably related to the mayor’s police power to protect the health, safety, and wellbeing of the residents from economic shock and high utility costs. This reasoning would follow a 2006 Western District of New York decision upholding a town’s development moratorium on a wind energy project. The temporary duration of the moratorium and that substantive police powers underpinning would likely also defeat categorical and non-categorical regulatory takings claims, respectively.
The legitimacy of cryptomining moratoria will allow local governments to engage in meaningful debate with commercial cryptocurrency miners, energy utilities, and the local ratepayers. Establishing sufficient connection prices, demand charges, and contingency pricing to compensate for the risk of stranded assets takes time. These tariffs must be carefully crafted to comply with state retail electricity rate standards, such as just and reasonable and non-discriminatory. Allowing any cryptomining boom to continue uncoordinated only increases the exposure of innocent, permanent residents.
The tension between the commercial cryptomining market and the rural residents of low-cost electricity towns begins a new chapter for energy justice advocates and miners. The new miners, however, find themselves on the opposite side of the scales, potentially harming residents and businesses in rural America. Local governments require regulatory tools like land use moratoria to better coordinate energy loads and protect its citizens from financial uncertainty unique to cryptocurrency rapid boom-and-bust cycles. Residents do not enjoy the same locational flexibility as these cryptomining operations nor are these cryptominers bringing significant business or jobs to the area—a large cryptomining facility can be monitored by a single employee. The division between cryptomining’s small local benefits and its high local cost will likely lead to interesting litigation as rural localities and sophisticated cryptominers attempt to navigate the crossroads of energy law, land use regulation, and emerging technologies.