Spotlighting Greenidge’s Air Emissions, EarthJustice Warns: Power-Hungry Data Centers Could Sink NYS Climate Goals

ALBANY, Apr. 8, 2021 — EarthJustice and the Sierra Club are calling for the Cuomo Administration take decisive action on Greenidge Generation’s pending renewal of its air emissions permit, potentially jeopardizing the plant’s proposed expansion of Bitcoin processing operations.

EarthJustice and Sierra Club call for an environmental impact statement on Greenidge’s air permit renewal.

The groups argue that the state is facing a flood of proposed power-hungry data centers within old generating plants that threaten to derail New York’s ability to achieve air emission targets under its ambitious 2019 climate legislation.

They call on the state Department of Environmental Conservation to require a full environmental impact statement on Greenidge’s permit renewal and to order an adjudicatory hearing on the matter.

“The DEC’s action on the Title V (air) permit for Greenidge will likely have far-reaching impact across the state,” said an Apr. 6 letter addressed to Gov. Andrew Cuomo and signed by Mandy DeRoche of EarthJustice and Kate Bartholomew of the Sierra Club.

“Additional scrutiny of the Greenidge air permit … is essential to prevent the floodgates from opening for other retiring power plants or peaker plants to follow Greenidge’s example,” the letter says. “Without it, the state would face grave challenges to meeting the CLCPA (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) requirements for reductions in New York’s carbon emissions of 40 percent by 2030 and 85 percent by 2050.”

Greenidge spokesman Michael McKeon said: “This group (Sierra Club) has flailed around trying to find anything to oppose our environmentally-sound operation for years; nothing has worked because their claims have no legal or factual basis…Greenidge respects the CLCPA and (is proud New York State is taking) this leadership role.”

Michael McKeon

While Sierra Club has sued in an unsuccessful effort to challenge Greenidge permits, the letter marks the entrance of EarthJustice into controversy over Bitcoin mining in Dresden. The law group played a major role in challenging fracking in New York, as well as helping block a proposed natural gas storage project near Watkins Glen.

The Greenidge plant is one of nearly 30 upstate New York power plants with the potential to be converted to full-time operation for Bitcoin mining and other high-energy data tasks, EarthJustice and Sierra Club said.

“At present, at least two of the region’s power plants are proceeding with plans for full-time data center conversion,” the letter said. “For example, Beowulf Energy, which owns the Cayuga facility in Lansing and the Somerset plant in Barker have plans to convert the facilities to data centers that would operate at 500 megawatts and 100 megawatts, respectively…

“The greenhouse gas emissions from these two plants alone could be over 6 million tons of CO2-equivalent.”

The Greenidge air permit expires in September. The company applied early last month to renew it, but the DEC often takes a year or more to process such applications. In the past, the agency has allowed companies to operate under expired permits if it doesn’t complete its review by the renewal date.

Greenidge Generation began testing Bitcoin processors in late 2018. The price of Bitcoin has skyrocketed, and the company now plans a controversial major expansion of the Bitcoin operation.

The current permit allows the plant to emit 641,000 tons of CO2-equivalent gasses annually.

Although the plant’s emissions were well within that limit last year, its plans to dramatically expand Bitcoin mining operations could cause it to exceed the cap in the future.

On March 22, in announcing plans for a reverse merger that would make Greenidge Generation Holdings LLC a publicly traded company by September, the Greenidge team told investors it planned to more than double Bitcoin processing by June 30 and double it again by the end of next year.

“If left unchecked,” the EarthJustice letter said, “Greenidge will reach 106-megawatt capacity shortly, which will cause emissions to skyrocket to 1.063 million tons of CO2-equivalent a year, or 165 percent of the existing permit limit.”

Greenidge is currently seeking local permits to build four buildings to house new Bitcoin mining equipment. The DEC says it doesn’t need new state permits for the project, so it is standing aside to let the Planning Board of the Town of Torrey handle the environmental review.

Torrey officials have voted to waive an environmental impact statement.

The DEC had also waived an EIS in 2016 when it allowed the plant to restart in 2017. Both decisions to waive an EIS have been met with storms of protest and legal action by the Sierra Club, among others.

The plant, originally built between 1937 and 1953 to burn coal, was shut down 2011 and sold for scrap the following year. It sat idle until 2017, when its new owners, Connecticut-based Atlas Holdings, converted it to burn natural gas.

The state Public Service Commission’s 2016 decision to award the plant a certificate of public convenience and necessity drew heavy criticism on the grounds that light demand for power didn’t justify restarting a fossil fuel plant.

When demand for power from the grid dried up — as critics predicted it would — Greenidge began experimenting with Bitcoin processors in late 2018. The price of Bitcoin has increased more than 10-fold since then, turbo-charging the plant’s profit margins.

On March 22, Greenidge officials said they were using 19 megawatts of power to run 7,000 Bitcoin mining machines. They told investors they would raise that to 85 megawatts by the end of next year.

The proposed expansion has triggered both support from local leaders like former Yates County Legislative Chair Tim Dennis and harsh criticism from individuals and environmental groups.

The Committee to Preserve the Finger Lakes had sent letters to Cuomo protesting Greenidge’s “reckless” Bitcoin mining operation. One is signed by more than 100 businesses, including wineries, breweries and tourist firms. Another is signed by more than 600 individuals.

The EarthJustice/Sierra Club letter said the “DEC must allow for the participation of interested community members and groups, as well as those directly impacted by the facility, for a full and accurate environmental impact assessment.”

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