Senate Energy Committee Learns About Blockchain

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In a hearing Tuesday, the Senate Energy Committee investigated blockchain technology’s potential implications for energy policy.

Yesterday, a panel of five witnesses from various research organizations took questions from the Senate Committee on Energy and Natural Resources.

The witnesses were Paul Skare from the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory; Thomas Golden from the Electric Power Research Institute; Claire Henly, managing director at Energy Web Foundation; Arvind Narayanan, computer science professor from Princeton University; and Robert Kahn from the Corporation for National Research Initiatives.

The hearing, billed as “Energy Efficiency of Blockchain and Similar Technologies,” essentially covered two broad topics – energy intensive mining operations and the possibility of using blockchain technology to improve the efficiency and security of the energy grid.

On the first issue, though the witnesses cited data indicating mining is extremely energy intensive (with Narayanan, for instance, claiming the practice uses as much energy as the state of Ohio), they made few regulatory recommendations. Witnesses mentioned time-of-use pricing and incentives to encourage mining during non-peak hours, but largely seemed to agree the problem of energy use will likely be solved by market forces.

Golden claimed the decline in value of cryptocurrencies will force miners to make their operations more efficient, while Henly pointed out in written testimony that the industry is already backing off from energy-intensive networks and that “industry’s overall energy usage will decline as existing networks move away from Proof-of-Work and new networks go live with PoS and PoA.”

When asked by Senator Rob Portman if limiting mining was a practical solution, Henly seemed to discourage the idea, saying, “Our strong recommendation is to invest in researching alternatives to energy-intensive bitcoin mining practices.”

Narayanan agreed that the US government should increase its funding of research into blockchain uses for energy grid management. He detailed what that might look like:

“Perhaps what we could have more of is researchers from very different areas working together about the applications of one kind of technology in a different sector, such as blockchain technology or other computing technologies, in the energy sector. So perhaps funding that is strategically directed in order to incentivize these kinds of collaborations could be very fruitful.”

US investment in research seems particularly crucial in light of Henly’s assertion that the US is lagging behind other countries in blockchain development.

“[M]ost of the development, especially in the energy sector, around blockchain, is happening in Europe. Some of the key core developers are based in Berlin, and a lot of the demonstration projects around energy applications are also in Europe. And I think there is a real opportunity for the US to put together additional programs, funding sources – perhaps the [Department of Energy], perhaps more broadly – on blockchain-related technologies that would support foundational and fundamental research.”

Though there’s no guarantee any of the senators present at yesterday’s hearing will act on any of the recommendations, the committee at least seemed receptive to the witnesses’ opinions and enthusiastic about the possibilities of blockchain. “I do believe we are at the dawn of a new age with the potential for blockchain technology, and we cannot squander it,” said Senator Catherine Cortez Masto.

Tim Prentiss is a writer and editor for ETHNews. He has a master’s degree in journalism from the University of Nevada, Reno. He lives in Reno with his daughter. In his spare time he writes songs and disassembles perfectly good electronic devices.

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