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How many gigabytes of data do you consume every month? In an era where accessing websites, downloading files and scrolling through social media feeds is second nature, we rarely consider how much data we are consuming, or its environmental cost. Researchers at Imperial College London, however, found that downloading just one gigabyte of data requires 200 litres of water. Water is needed to cool the massive data servers that search engines and websites, such as Amazon and Google, use to power their internet services. These facilities also consume electricity at an astonishing rate, with data centres accounting for 2% of the US’ annual power consumption. Meanwhile, data centres in China use as much electricity as Hungary and Greece combined

There are nearly 3 million data centres in the US alone, and a 2014 report from the US Department of Energy found that together, these data centres consume 165 billion gallons of water annually. To put this in context, the World Health Organization estimates that adults need roughly 5 gallons of water a day to meet basic health and hygiene standards. This means that the annual water usage by data centres in the US could support over 90 million people’s basic water requirements for one year. 

Data centres require significant amounts of water due to a process known as “evaporative cooling.” In this process, water is used to cool the air around the server’s processing units. In the past, data centres used air conditioners, but this approach was energy intensive and expensive to operate. Otto Van Geet, an engineer at the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, observed the trade off between water and electricity usage, commenting,  “if the water consumption goes down, energy consumption goes up and vice versa.”

Emma Weisbord, an officer at the International Water association, noted that the water required to support cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin also “cannot be ignored.” One estimate found that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption exceeded that of countries like Switzerland and Kuwait. Cooling and powering cryptocurrency servers is a water-intensive process, with Bitcoin alone requiring up to 411 billion gallons of water per year. 

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Much of this water is diverted from water scarce communities, particularly in the American South-West. Research from the Illinois Institute of Technology found that data centres in the US are often established in small rural towns, many of which already suffer from water scarcity. These small towns have to make trade-offs between the economic development data centres generate and long-term water access. “With climate change, we are expected to have more prolonged droughts,” said Venki Uddameri, director of the water resources center at Texas Tech University. “These kinds of water-intensive operations add to the local stress.” 

In response to these concerns, some internet companies have tried to improve their water efficiency. For example, Google is experimenting with using reclaimed wastewater and recycling water through its cooling systems multiple times. In 2013, Facebook opened a data centre in the Arctic Circle in Sweden to attempt to make use of naturally cooler temperatures. Similarly, Microsoft has been testing underwater data centres since 2016 to reduce the cost of cooling, as well as reach large populations located in coastal cities. 

In 2021 annual spending on data centres is expected to top USD$200 billion globally, a 6.2% increase from 2020. The COVID-19 pandemic saw a 70% increase in internet usage, with Facebook alone recording a 27% increase in usage. Our internet consumption is accelerating at an unprecedented rate, and the number of internet servers required to support our online presence will grow in tandem. 

Just writing this article required around twenty litres of water, and for every hour that you browse the internet reading similar pieces, you use about five. If you want to decrease your online environmental impact, try unsubscribing from unnecessary emails, limiting online movie streaming, reducing the amount of information you store in cloud systems, and choosing green web hosts. To truly limit the internet’s environmental cost, however, consumers will need to continue to demand accountability and ingenuity from the digital giants that profit from our reliance on the internet. 

Green hydrogen is a clean burning fuel that eliminates emissions by using renewable energy to electrolyse water, separating the hydrogen atom within it from its molecular twin oxygen. 

How Is Green Hydrogen Made?

The process of electrolysis has to happen. This process requires water, a big electrolyzer and plentiful supplies of electricity. if this electricity comes from renewable sources, then the hydrogen is green; the only carbon emissions are those from the generation infrastructure. 

However, not much green hydrogen is currently being produced; it currently accounts for less than 1% of annual hydrogen production, according to Wood Mackenzie. 

A challenge lies in the relatively small supply of electrolyzers and compared to more established production processes, electrolysis is very expensive, so the market for electrolyzers is small. 

How Do You Use It?

Green hydrogen can be added to natural gas and burnt in thermal power or district heating plants. It can be used to replace the industrial hydrogen that gets made every year from natural gas. 

However, storing and transporting green hydrogen is difficult; the highly flammable gas occupies a lot of space and can make steel pipes brittle. Because of this, specialised pipelines must be built, which is costly, pressurising the gas or cooling it to a liquid. These last two processes are energy-intensive and undermine green hydrogen’s round-trip efficiency. 

How Expensive Is It?

The International Energy Agency put the cost of green hydrogen at USD$3 to $7.50 per kg, compared to $0.90 to $3.20 for production using steam methane reformation. 

The cost of electrolyzers must be cut to reduce the price of green hydrogen, but this will take time and scale. However, the IEA says that electrolyzer costs could fall by half by 2040, from around $840 per kilowatt of capacity today. 

Another problem is that green hydrogen requires very large amounts of cheap renewable energy because some is lost in the process of electrolysis. Shell says that electrolyzer efficiencies range from around 60-80%. 

It is likely that developers, like Lightsource BP and Shell, will build green hydrogen production plants with dedicated renewable energy generation assets in high-resource locations. 

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Although a consensus has been reached that the world cannot be “fully decarbonised in the long term without green hydrogen,” producing the quantities of green hydrogen that the world will need would require a massive amount of renewable energy as well. 

According to the International Renewable Energy Agency (Irena), the world will need 19 exajoules of green hydrogen in the energy system in 2050- between 133.8 million and 158.3 million tons a year. 

Annual growth rates of wind and solar are increasing, however it is nowhere near enough for the world to be in line with the Paris Agreement goals. “The share of renewables in the worlds’ total final energy consumption has to increase six times faster to meet agreed climate goals,” Irena wrote in a report last year. 

With this, many argue, particularly within the oil and gas sector, that meeting ever- increasing energy demands with solely electricity is not going to be possible.

The current argument for clean hydrogen is that the bulk of the required volume of energy will have to be produced by natural gas and CCUs, also known as blue hydrogen. 

Several oil majors are struggling for pole position in green hydrogen development. For example, Shell Netherland confirmed in May that it had joined forces with energy company Eneco to bid for capacity in the latest Dutch offshore wind tender to create an enormous hydrogen cluster in the Netherlands. BP’s solar developer Lightsource also revealed that it plans to develop an Australian clean hydrogen plant powered by 1.5 gigawatts of wind and solar capacity. 

Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies have been slated as the future of finance. However, are cryptocurrencies harming the environment? More light is being shed on their environmental impact as studies determine that each Bitcoin transaction consumes large amounts of electricity, a problematic finding as the world looks to make the shift towards green energy.

Since its first transaction in 2009, Bitcoin has soared in popularity and has been volatile at times. At the time of writing, a single Bitcoin costs USD 57 000. However, more concerning than its volatility is its energy consumption.  

How Does Bitcoin Work?

Bitcoin is regulated through a blockchain in which each transaction is tracked through a public ledger ranging across computers worldwide. This ‘mining’ process, which allows validated transactions to take place, is extremely energy-intensive; a single Bitcoin transaction could power the average US household for a month, with the Bitcoin network able to process about seven transactions per second.

Computers used to mine Bitcoin need to be high-powered enough to solve complex computational math problems, too complex to be solved by hand. The amount of Bitcoin released is halved every four years or so, making the currency more scarce and valuable over time but also more costly and time-consuming for miners to produce, affecting its energy consumption rates further.

Is Bitcoin Bad For the Environment?

Real-time figures provided by the Cambridge Bitcoin Electricity Consumption Index show that Bitcoin accounts for 0.40% of the world’s total electricity consumption, and 0.34% of the world’s total electricity production, underscoring efforts to reduce the planet’s energy consumption and use of fossil fuels. Though the figure may seem small, it has a significant impact overall. To put these figures into perspective, the annual electricity consumption of Bitcoin is greater than the total energy required to power all the tea kettles in the UK for 29 years. Additionally, Bitcoin is just one of the thousands of cryptocurrencies currently in use.

Other cryptocurrencies, including Ethereum and Litecoin are continuing to grow in popularity, adding further pressure to the global energy consumption rate. As cryptocurrencies become more accessible to the general public, experts predict that the cryptocurrency industry will continue to expand, transforming the way we bank. 

As Bitcoin usage becomes more common, Digiconomist estimates that Bitcoin’s annual energy consumption has risen from 9.6 TWh in February 2017 to 73.2 TWh in January 2020. If Bitcoin was a country, it would be the 40th highest energy-consuming country in the world, ranking above Colombia and the Czech Republic. The annual carbon footprint of Bitcoin, 34.76 megatonnes of CO2, is comparable to that of Denmark. A single Bitcoin transaction consumes more energy than 100 000 Visa transactions

A fluctuating Bitcoin price, along with increases in computer efficiency, ‘slowed’ its energy footprint growth rate to 20% per month in 2017. If that trend continues, estimates suggest it could consume all the world’s electricity by January 2021. These estimates do not take illegal activity into account, suggesting that the energy consumption rate could be higher than predicted. 

Determining Bitcoin’s Environmental Impact

To determine energy consumption, researchers have relied on surveys, interviews and news reports, and have performed calculations based on network performances. Digiconomist’s figures are determined by the amount of mining revenue spent on electricity costs. However, determining the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies is challenging as the total number of cryptocurrencies changes daily and they are untraceable. 

It is unknown whether electricity for Bitcoin mining is generated from fossil fuels or renewables. Coinshares, a cryptocurrency asset management and analysis firm, states that 74.1% of the electricity used by Bitcoin is generated from renewables, such as hydropower, making it ‘more renewable-driven than almost every other large-scale industry in the world’. 

However, many analysts dispute these claims; the University of Cambridge released a report in 2020 determining that only 39% of energy consumed by these mining facilities comes from renewable sources. 

The complex computing systems used by miners mean that they spend 60-80% of their revenue on electricity. Because of these relatively slim potential profit margins, Bitcoin mining often occurs in remote rural areas where electricity is cheaper. It is suggested that energy sources include but are not limited to Chinese coal and hydropower and Icelandic geothermal power.

Future of Cryptocurrency

Cryptocurrencies may seem to be the future of finance and a worthwhile investment but it comes at a drastic cost. A report published by Nature Climate Change made an alarming statement that Bitcoin could alone produce enough CO2 emissions to push global warming above 2°C in less than three decades. 

To resolve this, on March 19 2021, 26 technology companies in Europe signed a pledge to develop “digital green solutions” to help the world tackle climate change by curbing carbon emissions and digitally transforming key economic sectors. At the same time, European nations also signed a pledge to support what they called “clean digital technologies.” Countries vowed to, among other things, build 5G and 6G networks while backing blockchain technology, quantum computing and artificial intelligence.

As experts dispute the future of Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, one thing is certain: if they are here to stay, global energy consumption will rise drastically. With the impact of the climate crisis worsening, the question of whether the benefits of cryptocurrencies outweigh their environmental costs should be considered. 

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