A little over a year ago I took apart the cryptographic arms race that makes Bitcoin such a massive energy hog. For their January 2019 issue IEEE Spectrum asked me to follow up by profiling Ethereum, Bitcoin’s younger cryptocurrency cousin, which used roughly as much electricity as Iceland for most of 2018. The resulting feature explores the implications of Ethereum’s heavy energy footprint and the Ethereum community’s ambition to prove out a better way to secure global transactions.
I was pleasantly surprised by the candour of Vitalik Buterin, the Russian-Canadian computer scientist who invented Ethereum when he was just 18. “Criminal” and “a huge waste of resources” are how he described the power-hungry ‘Proof of Work’ distributed security scheme that underpins most cryptocurrencies — including Bitcoin and Ethereum. Even in raw economic terms, Buterin ventured that his brainchild’s economic contributions “look unfavourable” next to the “millions of dollars being burned” to sustain Ethereum.
By the end of this year Buterin and his fellow travellers expect to be implementing an alternative security scheme (‘Proof of Stake’). Ultimately, vows Buterin, they will slash Ethereum energy use by over 99 percent.