The New York State Department of Environmental Conservation announced this week it still had not made up its mind about whether to deny or renew the air permit application for Greenidge Generation, a natural gas-powered plant that supports a profitable bitcoin mining operation in the Finger Lakes region.
With the deadline now extended another three months, the power plant and its round-the-clock bitcoin computer farm will continue to operate under its previous permit until a decision is reached. The energy facility has been at the center of a climate change fight for nearly two years. Environmental activists have recently followed Gov. Kathy Hochul at many of her events, chanting for a “Moratorium” and “No fracked gas for bitcoin mining.” A bill that would put a two-year pause on proof-of-work crypto mining operations is currently heading to the floor of the state assembly.
As Gothamist previously reported, the facility was once a coal plant that shuttered in 2011 and only operated about 6% of the time. In 2014, it was purchased by Atlas Holdings, a Connecticut-based investment company. Starting two years ago, the 106-megawatt facility began running 24-7. It now powers about 20,000 computers crunching complicated algorithms to “mine” for cryptocurrency, raking in more than $100 million in Bitcoin revenue last year.
“It’s disappointing because the plant is allowed to continue to operate while they extend [the permit],” said Robert Howarth, an ecology and environmental biology professor at Cornell University, while adding that it’s not as bad as renewing the permit. “I hope they make the right decision, and simply turn it down.”
Earlier this month, the Sabin Center for Climate Change Law at Columbia University released a white paper outlining the legal precedent for Hochul to place a statewide moratorium on cryptomining. Author Jacob Elkin argued that the state Environmental Quality Review Act and the Community Protection and Climate Leadership Act (CLCPA) would allow a freeze on issuing permits to these facilities until the DEC can assess the environmental impacts of their operations. In 2010, similar executive powers were used to put a moratorium on fracking. Hochul’s office did not respond to requests for comment on the white paper or the Greenidge permit application.
“New York would definitely be taking the lead in this instance, as it did with fracking,” Elkin said.
Previously, the DEC determined that Greenidge Generation had not shown that they adequately met the requirements for the CLCPA, which requires New York to shave 40% of its carbon emissions within the next eight years. On March 25, the energy facility proposed greenhouse gas mitigation measures as part of their air permit renewal application after the agency advised them to do so.
A DEC spokesperson said the department is extending the decision period because it needs additional time to review the new proposal as well as 4,000 public comments. The department said no final decision has been made but that their ultimate ruling will be in compliance with the state’s Climate Act.
With each day that clicks by, there's more fish kills. There's more emissions, there's more, more everything that we're trying to stop.
In a statement via email, Greenidge wrote that, at full capacity, the plant's emissions are 0.2% of the state’s goal for 2030. The company said its permit, which expires in 2026, wouldn’t impede the state’s emissions reduction goals and it was willing to reduce emissions further to comply.
Environmental activists and Finger Lakes residents say they will continue their fight against renewing Greenidge’s air permit. Ken Campbell, a retired teacher who lives about a half-mile down the shore on Seneca Lake from Greenidge, said he feels like he is defending his home in a way that feels like “David and Goliath.”
While he and many of his neighbors are disappointed by the DEC’s delay, they admit it’s better than an approval. Environmental scientists told Gothamist in February that hot water runoff from power plants can often imperil underwater species.
“We're confident we're going to finally prevail,” said Vinny Aliperti, owner of Billsboro Winery, located eight miles north along the shore of Seneca Lake from Greenidge. “But with each day that clicks by, there's more fish kills. There's more emissions, there's more, more everything that we're trying to stop.”
Climate scientists want the state to send a clear message to cryptocurrency miners that fossil fuel plants are not there for the taking. Several defunct power plants exist throughout New York State, especially in rural areas like the Finger Lakes, according to Cornell's Howarth.
“If the DEC were to approve this air permit, it would be a terrible terrible precedent,” said Howarth, who is also a member of the New York State Climate Action Council, which is tasked with developing implementation plans for the CLCPA. “We really need to keep those [fossil fuel-powered plants] shuttered and closed down. We can’t really be reopening them to burn fossil fuels and have any chance of meeting climate goals.”
Just in this past quarter alone, Greenidge posted a revenue of more than $44 million. According to a recent press release, the company closed a deal for over $100 million in financing last week to expand their operations outside of New York. At full capacity, the plant’s emissions almost rival the emissions of neighboring Tompkins County, with a population of more than 105,000, Anthony Ingraffea, a Cornell University Engineering professor who estimated the air impact for local environmental groups, told Gothamist in February. He said that it’s “impossible” for Greenidge to cut emissions by 40%; when it operates its natural gas plant at maximum capacity, 24-7.
“It’s just one plant – you can look at it that way, but it’s a huge consumer of natural gas,” Howarth said. “And if it were allowed to operate, then it’s no longer just one plant. It’s just a totally wrong direction for our state.”