Amidst increased scrutiny over Bitcoin’s environmental impact, following Tesla’s decision to stop accepting the cryptocurrency earlier this month and Elon Musk’s persistent meddling, purportedly eco-friendlier coins have drawn more of a spotlight.
Chia is one such cryptocurrency that has recently gained a lot more attention, and as the plant-inspired name suggests, it’s billed as a more environmentally sound alternative to Bitcoin. Instead of typical “Proof of Work” mining like in Bitcoin and Ethereum—which requires high-end computers to solve complex equations to earn coin rewards—Chia uses the excess storage in your computer.
The “Proof of Space and Time” consensus model requires “farmers” (miners) to “seed” spare hard drive space into “plots” of cryptographic numbers, all for the chance to earn a chunk of XCH cryptocurrency while securing the network. Cutesy names aside, Chia farming is essentially a storage-centric spin on crypto mining—one that doesn’t require ample amounts of energy or high-end graphics cards to operate. Ultimately, it works by filling up countless hard drives with useless data, and the more drive space you fill up, the more potential rewards the network hands out. This approach is supposed to be more environmentally friendly than Proof of Work because it doesn’t have the vast energy consumption demands of powerful GPUs or specialized mining rigs.
Chia Network aims to turn the XCH coin into a worldwide currency, and it has big backers who believe in the vision. Earlier this week, the firm announced that it raised $61 million in funding at a $500 million valuation, and Chia founder and CEO Bram Cohen—the original creator of BitTorrent—plans to take the company public.
However, there’s pushback to the idea that Chia is as “green” of a Bitcoin alternative as it claims to be. Recent reports suggest that Chia mining may wear out a basic consumer solid state drive (SSD) in a matter of weeks, due to the limited endurance of such hardware and the immense write demands of Chia’s farming model. As an ExtremeTech headline this week spelled out, “PSA: Mining Chia on an SSD Will Absolutely Wreck It in No Time Flat,” and German cloud storage provider Hetzner banned crypto mining this month after Chia demand surged.
“With Chia mining there is also the problem that the hard drives are extremely stressed by the many read and write processes and will therefore break,” Hetzner wrote on Twitter.
Chia’s network is growing at a rapid rate as more and more miners seed their plots, hitting 12 exabytes this week and growing nearly a full exabyte within a 24-hour span. “Creating plots at this rate burns up the equivalent of one 1TB Samsung Evo SSD every 3 seconds,” tweeted software engineer Rick Branson. “An exabyte is 125,000 8TB drives or $25,000,000 in Seagate USB drives.”
With Chia’s popularity rising, The Guardian reported this week that it’s being blamed for driving up prices for SSDs, which are already in high demand for devices such as the perpetually scarce PS5. It’s similar to how high-end graphics cards or GPUs have been difficult to purchase in recent years due to their use in Bitcoin and Ethereum mining, much to the chagrin of hardcore PC gamers.
As mining demand soars, it has become very difficult for the average individual Chia user to earn any rewards—again, an echo of what’s already happened with Bitcoin and other major proof-of-work cryptocurrencies. Chia does not currently support mining pools that allow users to band together for a smaller share of rewards, although the feature is purportedly due soon. Miners have been tweeting images of the farming software showing estimated block rewards taking 10 or more years to win at current rates.
For its part, Chia disputes the idea that its farming process is problematic. Cohen went on the offensive yesterday on Twitter, calling out “yabos” who claim that hard drives are being wasted for Chia farming. He suggested that as the network grows, mining will eventually take place on “mostly overprovisioned/otherwise decommissioned storage,” and added that “all those HDs being dedicated exclusively to farm are have had minimal wear. They can still be sold used.”
In an emailed statement to Motherboard, Chia defended its approach.
"Chia published its basic guide to farming in February 2021, and explicitly cautioned farmers to limit the amount of plots they create that use internal/consumer grade SSD as the temporary space, as SSDs have very different wear lives," the statement read. "For those interested in farming Chia, the guide to plotting basics has been and will continue to be available on the Chia website."
Bitcoiners have grabbed hold of the narrative surrounding Chia and its supposedly more environmentally-friendly nature, even casting it as a threat to the whole space. “Chia is seriously going to cause such a gigantic reprisal against the entire industry,” Castle Island Ventures partner Nic Carter wrote on Twitter, commenting on a graph showing Chia’s rising network usage.
Cohen tweeted yesterday that Bitcoin is “more a cult than an actual project, and claimed that “apologists for Bitcoin waste will continue to dunk on Chia claiming that it's the thing which is really wasteful.” Cohen signed off his thread with a parting shot at critics: “Good luck worshiping what you imagine Satoshi was going after guys. See if you ever figure out what he was trying to get at with 'one CPU one vote.’”
Bitcoin maximalists are famously territorial about the original cryptocurrency and look down on altcoins (or “shitcoins”). Chia’s positioning as an eco-friendly alternative was sure to create conflict, but if Chia farming ultimately leads to landfills full of tapped storage drives, then it’s likely to reflect on a wider crypto market that’s already reckoning with—and fighting over the response to—its considerable environmental impact.
Update: This article was updated with comment from Chia.