WEST ALTON, Illinois In farmland near the banks of the Mississippi River, the state's largest electric utility has stuffed a shipping container full of high-powered computers, in the shadow of one of its coal-fired power plants.
The project, launched quietly this year at Ameren Corp.'s Sioux Energy Center here, is a controversial experiment: Ameren built the data center to guzzle energy from the electric grid and help its power plants avoid ramping their production down and back up again, which wastes energy and stresses the plants.
But the company needed something for the computers to work on. So Ameren devised a task for the servers: "Mine" for Bitcoin, the polarizing digital currency now on a Wall Street tear.
The work is novel. Experts are unaware of other regulated U.S. utilities mining cryptocurrencies. Ameren said the company believes it is "one of, if not the first in the country" to perform the activity.
If successful, the experiment could cut power plants' carbon emissions and make Ameren millions, both from more efficient operations and from the bitcoins themselves. The company has already collected more than 20 bitcoins, valued, as of Friday, at more than $60,000 apiece.
But critics are disconcerted. They worry the data center is a ploy to artificially heighten demand for struggling coal plants, allowing them to run more than is justified. They argue that the venture will burn more coal and pollute more, not less, all while missing opportunities to use that same energy to power other technologies, such as battery storage or electric vehicle charging stations.
Meanwhile, state watchdogs who police utility spending and consumer impacts want to ensure that ratepayers remain off the hook for costs tied to "speculative commodities, like virtual currencies."
"Should a public utility be dabbling in cryptocurrency?" asked local Sierra Club official Andy Knott. "This seems like a bizarre activity for a monopoly public utility."
Bitcoins which only exist digitally, and have no physical backing, like an actual coin or bill make up the original and most valuable set of cryptocurrencies that are acquired and exchanged using an electronic ledger on a shared network, known as a blockchain, that tracks each transaction and addition of new "coins."
Since Bitcoin's perceived value relies largely on scarcity, mining individual bitcoins is difficult by design. It requires that high-powered computers grind out giant numbers of math problems, or hashes, in the hope of receiving newly available coins. Globally, billions of gigahashes meaning billions of billions of the problems are computed every second, according to academic experts who have testified before Congress.
All that computing devours enormous amounts of energy. And it's not just the mining for new currency: Bitcoin transactions alone can each require twice as much electricity as the average U.S. home uses in an entire month, experts say. Meanwhile, cooling the computers can create a need for even more energy, particularly in warm climates.
Bitcoin consumes more electricity than all the televisions in the U.S., according to a University of Cambridge website dedicated to Bitcoin's energy consumption, and more energy than entire countries even big ones, like Argentina.
'Fill in the valleys'
Ameren says it has not increased peak power production, and that mining Bitcoin was never its original intention. It set out to use high-powered computers as a flexible and controllable electrical load. It's not efficient, officials say, to have power plants make sudden and dramatic changes to their output. They compared it to the improved fuel efficiency that motorists see during steady highway driving, as opposed to the more demanding, stop-and-go miles in a city.
Ameren says its data center can stand in when energy demand dips.
"The objective here is to help fill in valleys," said Warren Wood, the vice president of regulatory and legislative affairs for Ameren Missouri. "That helps run the system more efficiently."
The company said it is open to other uses for the computing power. "A data center can do a lot of different things of value," Wood said. "Bitcoin just happens to be one of them."
The company has talked about using the firepower for other data-heavy tasks, it said, like DNA sequencing.
The facility's key feature is the rapid off-and-on capabilities of the computers. When use dips, they can quickly ramp up activity. When it peaks, they can ramp down at a moment's notice.
That kind of flexibility, Ameren says, can be increasingly valuable on the modern electric grid, where both power supply and demand are now prone to greater swings. Solar arrays and wind turbines produce more in sunny and windy conditions. And demand is becoming more variable, too. For example, when the sun sets, homes with rooftop solar installations can suddenly need power from the grid.
The company's data center project cost about $1 million to install, and has been running since April. Ameren said it was put at Sioux because of available space, and that it is not hooked exclusively to the coal-fired plant as a source of power.
But even though it draws energy from the overall electric grid, the region is awash in power from coal, which accounts for about two-thirds of Ameren's generation. And Missouri, overall, burns more coal than any state except Texas, according to the latest government data.
The data center can use a half of a megawatt of electricity, if running full tilt. By comparison, the 54-year-old Sioux plant the third-largest of Ameren's four coal plants has capacity to produce 972 megawatts.
Knott, the interim central region director for the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign, called the data center "essentially a way to prop up coal use."
"This really increases demand on the system, and therefore, demand for coal energy," said Knott, who is based in St. Louis. "I think what they're trying to do is avoid having to ramp down their generators."
Knott said the company could better serve the public by using alternative technologies that would still help balance power demand plus offer other benefits, like electric vehicle charging stations, or battery storage projects that can accompany renewable energy generation.
"At least with batteries, you would be storing that energy and using it again later," Knott said.
The move has also been met with caution and resistance from some state regulators at the Missouri Office of Public Counsel, who argue on behalf of utility consumers.
The company initially sought to include $8,000 of the data center energy costs in a recent round of price adjustments for customers. Ameren backed off, but the OPC said that it aims to ensure that the company's exploratory look at cryptocurrencies is not backed by ratepayer money.
"Captive Missouri ratepayers should not be funding non-essential gambles on the commodities market," wrote Geoff Marke, chief economist for the OPC, in testimony filed last month.
Ameren said that its mining efforts collect one new bitcoin about every two weeks. The company is currently holding its bitcoins, rather than selling them immediately.
Outside experts say the project could make immediate financial sense for the company, but also carry terrible costs in climate-warming emissions.
"I understand why they're doing it: It's extremely lucrative right now," said Joshua Rhodes, a research associate with the University of Texas at Austin's Webber Energy Group, hinting at Bitcoin's current, sky-high prices. "But if they're running more coal than they otherwise might have been, it is not a good situation for the environment."
Ameren announced last year that it intended to invest $8 billion in renewable energy projects over the next two decades and accelerate plans to reduce carbon emissions reaching "net-zero" carbon emissions by 2050.
But the more the company runs its coal-fired power plants, the less likely it is to more quickly retire them and switch to something cleaner and cheaper experts say.
Coal plants like Sioux typically only operate for a fraction of each month, as lower-cost power generation is generally deployed first. In April, for instance, Sioux only ran 17% of the time, according to the Sierra Club, and in the last seven years, the plant has never run more than 76% of the time in a single month.
Experts agree that adding load to reduce the "ramping" of power plants can potentially lower emissions, if done in smart and careful ways. But in certain scenarios, the concept also threatens to increase carbon emissions, particularly if it results in higher fossil fuel usage that wouldn't have happened otherwise.
Ameren's smaller-scale trial "is not stopping the ramping altogether, maybe just slowing it a little bit," said Rhodes, noting that he has not seen any data about the project. "Likely it's just ending up with more emissions, at this point."
Rhodes said Ameren is the only regulated utility he's aware of that is mining cryptocurrencies. It's an unusual case, he said, as a regulated electricity provider that is causing demand for its own energy.
Other examples might exist, still under wraps. Ameren's operation only came to light after state regulators arranged a call with the company to understand a filing that sought to defer costs tied to a research project capable of "producing digital assets."
But Ameren leaders said other utilities have reached out to express their own interest in the pursuit.
And interest extends beyond utilities.
University of California, Berkeley researchers have examined links between Bitcoin mining and energy prices, finding that the demand-altering activity can drive up local electricity costs.
Square, the California-based financial tech company with offices in St. Louis, has launched a Bitcoin Clean Energy Initiative. Earlier this year, it issued a multi-page memo about how Bitcoin mining's unique flexibility could make it a "complementary technology for clean energy production and storage."
The focus is just one sign that the currency has taken some key spheres of tech and popular culture by storm.
Jack Dorsey, the co-founder of Square and Twitter, and a St. Louis-area native, last year changed the bio on his personal Twitter page to a single word: "#bitcoin".
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