Burning Tires to Fuel Bitcoin Mining: Can it Go Green?

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It came as a shock for Carol Etheridge when she heard about the recent news of burning tires to fuel cryptocurrency mining in her neighborhood. Etheridge lives in the state of Pennsylvania, a few miles from the Panther Creek Power Plant in Nesquehoning, which now operates cryptocurrency mining on-site.

“It’s terrible. I can’t even believe that people would be allowed to burn tires,” Etheridge said.

The Carbon County in the Penn state, has been neglecting the environmental impacts caused by the power plant for ages, stresses another resident Steve Chuckra.

“I grew up in Pennsylvania and I feel very strongly that we have a heritage of environmental neglect. And allowing things like this to happen is just continuing that bad heritage,” Chuckra added.

In 2021, Stronghold Digital Mining Inc. acquired Panther Creek to generate cryptocurrency, and until now, the power plant has received at least seven violations related to unpermitted air pollution under the state’s Department of Environmental Protection (DEP).

Since the site’s acquisition, Stronghold Digital Mining workers transport coal waste from several sites, the largest being the Swoyersville dump site near Wilkes-Barre and separate usable coal from the massive piles and use it to generate electricity for crypto mining.

Some power is sold back to the grid for profit.

However, the Bitcoin (BTC) mining platform now wants to add a new fuel to its power generation mix – waste tires.

Basically, they heat used tires to precise temperatures, resulting in components like steel (from belted tires), carbon black and tire-derived fuel (TDF). The fuel is then used as energy in turbines to generate electricity, which in turn powers an onsite cryptocurrency mining farm.

“TDFs are especially needed when the quality of the coal refuse is low in energy content,” Stronghold spokesperson Naomi Harrington told the Guardian after the company announced its plans to utilize energy for Bitcoin mining by burning tires, in August.

The Panther Creek power plant recently submitted a permit proposal to the DEP, seeking permanent permission for tires to comprise up to 15%, or 78,000 tons, of its fuel. The firm presently holds temporary approval to test the use of TDFs.

Following this, neighboring residents and environmental organizations including Earthjustice, Clean Air Council and PennFuture held a virtual press conference, urging the Department to reject the proposal, claiming numerous health hazards if approved.

On the other hand, miners find this unusual setup to mine Bitcoin as “profitable” enough to justify finding unconventional sources of cheap or new energy generation.

Crypto mining in general is incredibly “energy-intensive.” For instance, Bitcoin alone is estimated to consume 110 terawatt-hours (TWh) a year — 0.55% of global electricity production, or roughly equivalent to the annual energy consumption of countries like Sweden or Malaysia. As a result, Bitcoin mining sector has been in a race to find the cheapest energy available.

Emissions Count at Large

For years, proper disposal of waste tires has been a serious environmental concern, given that all methods – burning, burying and grinding – come with their own ramifications.

For instance, the state of Colorado has the country’s largest waste tire graveyards, according to the Rubber Manufacturers Association. They are also a favorite breeding ground for mosquitos; of particular concern in the age of Zika and West Nile viruses.

The state of Colorado imposed waste tire fees and a separate legislation and no matter what it tries to do, more waste tires are being produced than recycled.

Russell Zerbo, the federal advocacy coordinator at the Clean Air Council at Penn State, told Cryptonews that burning tires create an abundance of harmful air pollution.

“Burning tires would increase polyaromatic hydrocarbon (PAH) pollution from the Panther Creek plant in Nesquehoning, PA. PAH pollution includes many carcinogens.”

Per EcoMENA, an environmental hub in the Middle East and North Africa region, the fumes that are being released from tire burning have been shown to be extremely toxic to human health and harmful to the environment. 

Apart from PAHs, open tire fire emissions include “criteria” pollutants, such as particulates, carbon monoxide (CO), sulphur oxides (SOx), oxides of nitrogen (NOx), and volatile organic compounds (VOCs).

Furthermore, uncontrolled tire burning has been proven to be 13,000 times more ‘mutagenic,’ than coal-fired utility emissions, says EcoMENA. This means the fumes if inhaled in the long run, are capable of inducing genetic mutations.

“This is not something that should be dumped on a county like Carbon County,” says Linda Christman, the president of the advocacy group Save Carbon County.

She notes that 36% of people living within one mile of the Panther Creek plant are below the poverty line. “The Department of Environmental Protection defines an Environmental Justice Area as any census tract where 20% or more individuals live at or below the federal poverty line,” Christman adds.

When asked whether there are any possible precautionary steps before going forward with such a plan, Zerbo stressed that burning tires “shouldn't be allowed.”

“I don't think there are any precautions that you could take. Crypto mining is a complete waste of electricity, there are no sustainable ways to do it.”

Greener Ways

While there are still some debates about exactly how energy-intensive Bitcoin mining is, there are also discrepancies over how “green” it is.

A report from Cambridge researchers found that renewable energy makes up only 39% of miners’ total energy consumption.

In December 2022, three U.S. lawmakers introduced a bill that urges crypto miners in the country to report greenhouse gas emissions.

Lena Klaaßen, co-founder of the Crypto Carbon Ratings Institute (CCRI) welcomed the legislation at the time, saying that there should be more transparency on the energy sources used for Bitcoin mining.

“In light of the imminent climate crisis, the priority should be on the decarbonization of the industry. To do so, it may help to align the incentives of all stakeholders active in the crypto industry,” she told Cryptonews.

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