PLATTSBURGH, N.Y. (CIRCA) - Bitcoin mines are considered a power-sucker in many towns where they've popped up. But experts believe the heat these machines produce while they're draining power can actually be used for a positive.
Cryptocurrency mines don't look like much. Just rows and rows of small, metal boxes with wires protruding from the top and fans spinning a constant whir of activity. These machines buzz around the clock, crunching complex math problems 24/7. As they spin, they're generating online currency and a ton of heat.
Thomas Pillsworth hosts dozens of mining machines inside a former paper mill in Plattsburgh, New York.
"When you put your hand in front of one of these, it’s a blow dryer on high," he explained.
"Waste heat is a fairly large problem, and it’s something the data center industry has been looking to combat for a long time."
Now, imagine 100 blow dryers, all cranking in one room, draining power and raising the temperature. It comes as a result of all the power these machines use. As of mid-October, an index that tracks cryptocurrency showed the bitcoin network uses the same amount of energy as the country of Austria, with one transaction consuming the same energy it would take to power 28 U.S. homes for a day. All of that energy being burned creates a ton of heat that, for now, is often wasted.
"Waste heat is a fairly large problem," corporate sustainability consultant Christina Page said. "And it’s something the data center industry has been looking to combat for a long time."
This idea of recycling waste heat isn't new, according to Page. For decades, a popular children's toy has been showing how easily it can be done: the Easy-Bake Oven.
"You’re basically cooking with a conventional light bulb. So, in that case, they were taking waste heat and using it for something useful," Page said.
In Plattsburgh, the city's mayor is looking to turn the wasted heat generated by bitcoin or cryptocurrency mining into a positive. A story by Circa partner "Full Measure with Sharyl Attkisson" detailed the influx of miners in Plattsburgh as a result of cheap hydro-power that drew the industry to their area.
Plattsburgh Mayor Colin Read now wants to find ways to put the heat the mining machines produce to better use.
"Each of these machines is about the size of a shoe box, and generates the same amount of heat as a space heater you may have in your office or your apartment," Read explained. "We could actually turn the heat source offering to a gymnasium or a field house or a civic center as we turn these machines on, and they could take care of the heating needs for these large structures."
Waste heat from mines can be channeled in various ways. But Page knows there are challenges.
"The problem is waste heat doesn’t travel very far. You can’t stick it in a pipe and send it across Manhattan, for example. It needs to be very nearby. And making the real estate align to make that happen can be a little on the tricky side," Page told Circa.
Amazon knows it can be done. The company is already making it work, heating its corporate headquarters in Seattle thanks to waste heat from a data center across the street that houses 250 telecom and internet companies. The heat generated by those machines is essentially routed through a complex system, with a computer sending it exactly where it’s needed on the other side.
Page hopes others, including cryptocurrency miners, will follow the company's lead and look for innovative ways to put heat to work.
"It requires some work. It’s definitely an engineering project. It’s absolutely a worthwhile endeavor," she said.