Bitcoin mining in China is creating a greater demand — for electricity

Bitcoin mining is so profitable in China that the crypto-currency could fall by half and miners would still make money, according to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF).

Even at the country’s highest regulated electricity tariff, miners can profit from bitcoin as long as it’s worth more than $6,925, BNEF analysts, including Sophie Lu, wrote in a report on Wednesday. The digital currency currently trades at about $13,850, down 29% from its record.

Bitcoin’s 1,400% surge last year saw greater demand for electricity to run the computers used in the crypto-currency’s mining. About three-quarters of those machines ended up in China, the world’s largest electricity user, which is now seeking to discourage the practice given a surge in power use in some provinces.

“Bitcoin mining under the current price is likely to be profitable under any electricity price regime in China,” Lu wrote.

Crypto-currency power use is facing more scrutiny, particularly in China, which is concerned that miners are taking advantage of low electricity prices. Digital currency transactions require energy-intensive computer networks, with the industry now using as much power as 3.4-million US households, according to Digiconomist’s bitcoin energy consumption index. China is said to be planning to limit power use by miners, which are starting to look elsewhere.

Rising demand

Electricity demand for bitcoin mining rose to about 20.5 terawatt-hours a year by the end of 2017, according to BNEF. This equates to more than half the 38 terawatt-hours of electricity used annually by the world’s biggest miner, BHP — or a 10th of the electricity needed to power SA.

In China, miners used 15.4 terawatt hours, which is just a blip in the country’s massive power industry. Even though it plays host to the world’s biggest community of bitcoin miners, they only used 0.2% of the country’s annual electricity production, according to the report.

It’s difficult to predict how much power will be used to mine bitcoin in the future, Lu wrote, as it depends on how efficient the computers running the complex calculations needed for mining become and how many additional computers will be used in the process. Miners earn bitcoin-denominated rewards for performing the complex calculations needed to confirm transactions in the crypto-currency.

While mining is profitable at the highest regulated electricity price of $0.13 per kilowatt-hour in China, many companies can take advantage of over-capacity in the power-generating sector to negotiate rates as low as $0.03, Lu wrote, adding that break-evens are achievable at $3,869 at these power prices.

And if China does make good on its plan to restrict bitcoin miners’ power use, they could move to new regions quite easily, Lu wrote. The computers used in mining aren’t expected to last more than two years and the other equipment involved is relatively cheap.

Wrote Lu: “The overall threat to the sustainability of the global bitcoin network may not be so drastic.”