This story was originally published by the Guardian and is reproduced here as part of the Climate Desk collaboration.
Environmentalists in Montana called it the “death watch.” Following years of financial losses, one of the handful of remaining coal-fired power plants in the state appeared doomed, its likely fate offering a small but noteworthy victory in the effort to avoid disastrous climate change. But then a bitcoin mining company stepped in to resurrect it.
The Hardin generating station, a 115-megawatt coal plant located a dozen miles from the historic site of the famous battle of Little Big Horn in southern Montana, was slated for closure in 2018 due to a lack of customers, only to somehow limp on, operating on just 46 days in 2020. “We were just waiting for this thing to die,” said Anne Hedges, co-director of the Montana Environmental Information Center. “They were struggling and looking to close. It was on the brink. And then this cryptocurrency company came along.”
In a deal struck in late 2020, Marathon, a bitcoin “mining” company, became the sole recipient of the power station’s electricity. It established an elongated data center on 20 acres of land beside the facility that is packed with more than 30,000 Antminer S19 units, a specialized computer that mines for bitcoin. Such thirst for power is common in crypto—globally, bitcoin mining consumes more electricity than Norway, a country of 5.3 million people.
As the bitcoin miners moved in last year, Hardin roared back to life. In the first nine months of 2021 alone, the plant’s boilers fired up on 236 separate days. Planet-heating emissions from the burning of Hardin’s coal soared too, with 187,000 tons of carbon dioxide emitted in the second quarter of last year, more than 5,000 percent more than was expelled in the same period in 2020.
In the third quarter, a further 206,000 tons of CO2 was emitted, a 905 percent increase on 2020,…