John Belizaire, the founder and CEO of Soluna Computing, joins the show to do a deep dive on how cryptocurrency mining and blockchain platforms impact the grid. You’ve probably seen the headlines and the narrative is that the computing power required to run these technologies places a huge strain on the grid. Well, John recently testified before Congress on the topic of cleaning up crypto mining and the energy impact of blockchains … and his opinion might surprise you. In fact, his viewpoint turns that narrative on its head.
John also discusses how sustainable computing is becoming yet another tool renewables developers and utilities can use to enhance grid resiliency and improve the financial performance of power generation projects. In short, John believes computing can become part of the grid … rather than just something that demands power from the grid.
(2:02) - Why the narrative around cryptocurrency mining is wrong.
(6:22) - The debate around 'proof of work' versus 'proof of stake'
(10:47) - On testifying before the US Congress.
(16:00) - How renewables and cryptocurrency mining can help power each other.
(20:40) - How computing can become part of the grid.
(23:21) - The intersection of sustainable computing and battery storage.
(27:24) - John's bold predictions.
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(Note: This transcript was reated using artificial intelligence. It has not been edited verbatim.)
Hey what's up everyone, and welcome to the Renewable Energy Smart pod. I'm Sean McMahon. And today I'm gonna be joined by John Belizaire,, the founder and CEO of Soluna Computing. Now, if you're wondering why I'm talking to the leader of a computing company on a renewable energy podcast, just remember that the mission of this podcast is to cover the renewables industry from all angles. And by the end of this episode, you'll understand why computing is one of those angles.
John and I are going to cover a lot of ground, including a deep dive on how cryptocurrency mining and blockchain technology impact the grid. You've probably seen the headlines, and the narrative is that the computing power required to run these technologies places a huge strain on the grid. Well, John recently testified before Congress on the topic of cleaning up crypto mining and the energy impact of blockchain and his opinion might surprise you. In fact, his viewpoint turns that narrative on its head.
John and I will also talk about how sustainable computing is becoming yet another tool utilities and renewables companies can use to enhance grid resiliency and improve the financial performance of power generation projects. In short, John believes computing can become part of the grid, rather than just something that demands power from the grid. So if you work in the renewable sector, or in the computing sector, or even in the crypto and web three space, you're going to want to hear what John has to say.
Hello, everyone, and thank you for joining me for this episode of the renewable energy smart pod. My guest today is John Belizaire, the founder and CEO of Soluna Computing. John, how are you doing today?
John Belizaire 01:49
I'm doing great, John, it's great to be on the show. Beautiful here in New York, where I'm based, I got a chance to walk outside or abnormally stuck in front of a screen all day. So it's been great so far.
Sean McMahon 02:02
Thank you for coming on the show. I really wanted to bring on talking about a few crucial pieces of what's going on and renewable sector. And one of those things that I just want to get right into is cryptocurrency mining, right? That's getting a lot of attention lately. And kind of the role it plays in energy markets itself. And the role of renewables can play in the future of cryptocurrency mining. So I know you testified before Congress earlier this year, and I want to talk about that a little bit later. But first, I want to start off with your broad opinions on how that looks. I mean, is cryptocurrency mining, something that we need to clean up? And if so how can it be accomplished?
John Belizaire 02:32
That's a great question. So our perspective at Soluna is that the current narrative out there, if you Google crypto and energy, what you'll see is a myriad of articles of statements that talk about really focused on the industries, energy consumption, the magnitude of as energy consumption, really as a as a problem as a challenge. And you will also find articles and content, comparing that energy consumption to the size of countries etc. There's, there's a whole host of them out there. And the other thing you'll find is that, you know, ultimately that energy consumption is bad for the planet in many other ways. And it uses lots of fossil fuels, etc. And the key thing that we believe, at Soluna is that that narrative is just wrong. Basically, to put it bluntly, there's two things that we seek to correct about the view on crypto, currency mining and the industry in general. The first is that the amount of energy that the Bitcoin network, it's the elephant in the room, or if you will, the Juggernaut in the space. So you know, everybody zooms in on that one, the energy consumption for that protocol, which is, you know, managing billions of dollars of asset value. Lots of people have put their wealth there is actually protected by that energy consumption, the original design of the technology was to find a way to ensure that the participants on the network, were incentivized to protect the network and also prove that they actually were doing that protective activity. And so energy was a simple, decentralized and completely provable way to do that. And it's an elegant design. And that energy consumption basically increases as the value that needs to be protected increases. And it fundamentally makes it really hard to attack the network, because to put it simply, you would have to consume the entire or nearly the entire amount of the energy that the entire network consumes to change the network in your favor. So that's a huge deterrent for someone who wants to attack the network. So that's the first thing you know, chain During the narrative on sort of the role of the, of the energy consumption, and what we're saying is that the energy consumption is actually a feature of the network, not a bug. That's the first thing we want to say. The second thing we want to say is that because the network has this energy consumption requirement, and because the computing that's being done on the network is actually a flexible form of computing, you can actually ramp that computing up and ramp it down, it's very resilient to that that sort of change and available power, if you will, that computing can serve as a fantastic solution to a very big problem in renewable energy. And that's wasted energy, intermittent energy, and sort of congestion on the grid network. And so if you marry, essentially, bring the confluence of these two worlds together, you can actually solve one of the biggest challenges we have, and that is making renewable a superpower in the world making more of it available. And that requires us to, yes, push the industry to use more renewable energy, be more sustainable in the way it it sources, electrons to power the computing, or at least participate in the entire ecosystem in a responsible way. So that's saloons perspective on the narrative, if you will.
Sean McMahon 06:23
Okay, There's recently been some conversation getting back to, you know, the mining piece of it, you know, about the ‘proof of work’ we've talked about is something that just is very energy intensive. And so there's been suggestions to kind of switch that to a ‘proof of stake.’
Have you kind of been following that conversation? What's your thought on it?
John Belizaire 06:39
Yeah, so just for our listeners to, to understand the difference between the two. So in the Bitcoin network, there's a system within the protocol around the security, as I mentioned before, and that's where you have to prove that you've done the work to find this very special number that gets stamped on each block to protect it. And when you present that number, it's clear that the only way you were able to get that number is to perform this computing. And because you're performing that computing, you've expended amount of energy, and the Bitcoin network is paying you back for that energy expenditure. So that's how the coin gets created, and so forth, to reward the security process. Proof of stake is essentially accomplishing the same thing. But differently, what it does is, within the protocol, there's a certain set of actors that are designated the actors that would then sort of perform a process to then select the block that gets added. The difference between those two things, one, proof of stake is less energy intensive, because it's not, you don't have to prove that you've expended energy, what you have to show is that you've staked a certain amount of the asset itself, to ensure that you're going to act correctly, like in other words, if you don't, if you don't do the right thing, then your state can get burned or destroyed, if you will. So it's a process by way to perform the same security element. But in a less energy intensive way. Proof of Work, as I said, is more energy intensive, but it has these other properties, in that it's much more decentralized. I don't care who performed the work, I don't need to trust them, it makes trust irrelevant. Whereas in proof of stake, there is inherently a trust that the rest of the network has to assume about those actors that have staked a certain amount of their assets. One is that they care whether their their asset gets burned or not. Right. And the other is that there isn't any collusion among them. So the concern that we have, or that many folks in the space have is, is it safe for us to move, a protocol that we know works, it's been working for 13 years has made the Bitcoin network at least incredibly resilient, you can mathematically prove how hard it is to protect the network or attack the network because of that energy consumption element. And it keeps the network pure around the core principles, which is decentralized decision making decentralized protection of the network and an open network for how you you join and participate in it. Proof of stake shifts that and you lose those properties. And the argument is that, yes, you lose those properties, but then you get less energy consumption. Right. So that only really matters if you believe the energy consumption of pow is a bug in that a feature rather than the other way around.
Sean McMahon 09:37
I gotcha. Okay, so it sounds like you're definitely in the camp of proof of work versus proof of stake.
John Belizaire 09:43
Yeah, I would say, though, that I want to make a couple of points for new networks. There's going to be there will be a coexistence between proof of stake and proof of work. And so I'm not saying that proof of stake does not have a role in the broader ecosystem, because there's lots of network That young young networks that are sort of forming and so forth. But what I'm saying is to say that Bitcoin should take the risk now with the asset value that it is and the role that it plays in the broader system to shift over to a younger protocol or a younger approach to solving this problem is very risky. And and why would we do that there are hundreds of millions of people around the world that now rely fundamentally on this to protect their assets in places, you know, we in the West, you know, we enjoy stable electricity and all sorts of other things. And there are many people in the world who do not enjoy that. And this democratized asset has helped them to do that. Why take the risk?
Sean McMahon 10:46
Yeah, I understand. So like I mentioned earlier, you testified before Congress earlier this year on this cryptocurrency mining topic. So what were two or three of your key takeaways from that experience? Both? And what we're able to share with members, but also, what's that, like? Was it kind of just a public circus? Or was it actually you felt like, you know what I'm saying like? So let's start with just the key, like, concrete takeaways?
John Belizaire 11:07
Yeah, what's it like, It's surreal, to be honest, showing it's, you know, these are elected officials. So you don't, you're sitting in front of them. And your statements are all public, therefore, the record, you know, you can be a little nervous, I would not be surprised, you know, anyone being in that situation, and there's a whole protocol that you have to follow. And so a very good friend of mine, sat down with me and said, John, like, when you go to this thing, here's a couple of things that you do not do, you know, you know, say, Hey, pal? Yeah, that's a good question. But you know, these people have worked hard to, you know, get in their positions. And so you say, you know, Congresswoman, Congressman, you know, so there's, there's some, there's some clear sort of rules of etiquette, and so forth. And the other is, you have to be prepared for just about anything to happen. I mean, there was one member who got on and for, I mean, each one of them get a certain amount of time, you don't ask me questions. And there was one person, if you watched the tape just got on and talked about all sorts of stuff like that had nothing to do with the committee, but they know what's going to be on the record. So they're like, this is this is, you know, President Biden, and this and that.
Sean McMahon 12:18
This is why the nationals are gonna win the World Series.
John Belizaire 12:23
Exactly. And I just, I was, I was shocked. But when you look at the other members, they were totally No, no one even blink, you know, it's like, okay, this happens every day. This is this is just, it's just normal, you know, par for the course kind of thing. So, I'd say that that was what it's like, and then the process leading up to it. There's a whole backstage thing where there's there's very detailed interviewing of each of the participants, people don't just sort of get an email, Hey, you want to come talk about this? Like, there's very careful vetting of who gets to talk and and what you're going to say. And so they asked you some of the questions, for sure. So that's a, that's some insight for the listeners.
Sean McMahon 12:59
Okay, well, I appreciate that backstory on what kind of happens both behind the camera and in front of the camera for the show, if you will, yeah. But then in your interaction with the members, like, what were some of the two or three things you took away in terms of like, okay, they've got a firm grasp on this, or maybe they don't have a firm grasp on this, or I was able to really kind of convince them of that.
John Belizaire 13:17
Yeah. Great question. A couple of key insights. One is they they are still learning. So there's a lot about the industry that members don't know. And they fundamentally need to understand, like, what are the real problems? I mean, you, as I was saying earlier, you can read articles, but then like, is that really true? Like, do you guys? Do you guys take all these things and dump them in a landfill? And you know, and stuff like that? What is the energy consumption really, of the mining world? And how do you figure that out? So it was a very, seek to understand posture from committee. So it wasn't sort of like a, you know, an inquisition, if you will, it was really just like, help us understand some of these things. The second observation that I had was that there was clearly a view that if this technology could have a positive effect on renewable energy development and the grid, we want to understand ways to what could what can we do to encourage the industry to use more green energy and participate in the energy transition? Are there policy things we can do and stuff like that? And how do we, how do we incentivize industry to be more sustainable? So there was there was a lot of focus on that and trying to get our insights and perspectives on it. And then I think the last, you know, insight for me, that was a bit of a surprise was that, look, some members don't like the fact that, you know, everybody wants us to go green. They're like, well, what's wrong with my state? Why should Why should Texas get all the benefit? You know, we over here and I think it was Western member from West Virginia was saying, you know, coal is cheap. And we can you in a weekend, Jim Hurry jobs hear what's wrong with that, you know, so there was a very interesting interaction that took place between one of the other test folks testifying that I found really surprising. And so that's, that's a perspective they have like, is it? You know, should we say you should only use green power? Because that could sort of create an imbalance around where investment takes place in the country? And is that is that fair? And I never sort of thought of it that way. Because we're, you know, we're really focused on catalyzing renewables. We're 100%. There. And when you look at it from an economic development perspective, it sort of changed that view. Right. So that was something I was surprised to hear.
Sean McMahon 15:43
Okay, John, well, you seem to have accomplished Mission Impossible, and that is to make a congressional hearing must see TV. So I've seen it, I watched it and headed this interview, but I will make sure we post the link to that. If people want to check that out, like exchange that might be worth it. Yeah, all right. Well, so you talked earlier about how kind of the, the role that cryptocurrency mining and renewables can kind of play to help each other. It was really It sounds like what you're saying. So let's dive deep on that. So where can mining come in to boost the overall viability of renewables?
John Belizaire 16:15
So, you know, we're all, as I said, in my testimony in the back of a fast moving Tesla at this point, right, where it feels like the pandemic has unlocked a momentum, you know, a movement around renewables, and it's unlocked a tremendous amount of investment coming into the space. But the industry, you know, still has this challenge, right, you have a grid that was designed many years ago, to based on the concept of synchronization between demand for that power and the generation of that power. That's what the grid is designed to do. And the way it accomplishes that is by building these very large fossil powered plants that they can dispatch, and they know exactly how much power it's going to produce. And then they model what the demand is, etc. When you start adding green energy, it creates all sorts of problems. And intermittency is no longer a balance, you can't control the dispatch ability, Mother Nature controls that. And it puts a lot of pressure on the owners of the power plants, these green power plants, solar, wind, hydro, where you have pockets, where there's a tremendous amount of power being produced, but the pipes to move that power to where the demand might be are congested, you have challenges where you have lots of energy production taking place at different hours of the day. But you don't have demand everybody's asleep. And so what's interesting is to add flexibility to the grid, what you really need is dispatchable load that you can sort of fire up and say, Hey, we need you, we need you to eat some of this power, or ramp down, we need you we need more power. So we need you to ramp your production down. Getting that to become part of the grid infrastructure at scale has been challenging. There's lots of demand response, things that are out there, industrial players participate in that and so forth. But what's interesting here is when you look at the nexus between crypto and renewable energy, is a real innovative way to solve some of these problems by bringing a computing process that is battable. In nature, it can be paused and it is very flexible, it can actually go to those pockets where that excess energy is happening, monetize that energy that would otherwise go to waste. So that that helps to boost those renewable energy projects. So they're, they're financially viable, if you will, and creates more incentive for more projects to the built. But then that same computing facility can actually be put on the grid or at the power generation, and play a role in being a grid infrastructure asset as well, where it can be dispatched up or down. And through that combination, what you essentially get is a physical hedge to the volatility that comes from prices as a renewable energy provider, and a new form of flexibility. That's not a battery, it's a it's better than a battery that can absorb energy and release energy at the right time, that is more integrated into the grid infrastructure, and more resilient to that price fluctuation as well. That's the potential for crypto and renewables to sort of come together and form a partnership, if you will, for increasing the amount of renewables in the world.
Sean McMahon 19:28
So what you're really describing is a future where the load from renewables is 100% used. Yes. So what percentage right now is curtailed?
John Belizaire 19:35
So it varies depending on where you are. We've seen pockets in the US where a project can see up to 30 to 40% of its energy being curtailed. On average, we see about 30% of the energy that could be monetized is not being monetized. It just gets curtailed or shifted down or the prices are negative. They have to pay to send that etc and So that's pretty significant when you look at it on a terawatt hours perspective, globally, we think it's about 225 terawatt hours annually, you translate that into lost revenue, that's something around $7 billion per year of lost renewable energy revenue for these projects. That's significant. And you look at, you know, how they're structured, there's equity, and there's debt in there. And if the project can't cover that, you know, it can't be around for 25 years, where it's sort of expected to provide that energy, it starts running into real financial issues. So if we can integrate those two things, there's a there's a win win, there's a financial boost, right, and there's a infrastructure enhancement that can be created.
Sean McMahon 20:40
Okay, what are some of the other challenges you're seeing to the energy transition?
Well, we're seeing the fact that the way we're approaching the transition, it's not expansive enough. In other words, the assumption is that if you just build more power lines, and you just build more batteries, everything's gonna be great. Unfortunately, that's not true, actually. Because there's much more needed, you need more technology to sort of sense things about the quality of those lines, you need more technology to help load participate in these flexible environments, you need regulatory shifts and sort of legacy regulatory frameworks that were in that were designed for the at the state level and the federal level for the legacy view of what the grid is to where the grid is going. There's a mismatch between those things, and I think, the ISOs, and the different agencies around the country that are responsible for the energy infrastructure, need to rethink what that infrastructure is, what is grid infrastructure? Is it just, you know, the classic things we think they are? No, they no longer are they there's a lot of new elements that will become part of the resources we use. So I think that the challenge is those rigid frameworks, which are designed to sort of create, you know, quality, quality energy that we don't have to think about, right? When you plug something in the world is this there's certainty that electrons are going to flow through there. But as you add more green energy, that's no longer true. So you have to create technology and, you know, regulatory frameworks to get it back to where it was when you have these flexible resources in there.
Sean McMahon 22:23
So from a technology standpoint, it sounds like you're talking a lot about enhanced role for batteries.
John Belizaire 22:27
Right? Yeah. So batteries, I'd say batteries are going to be helpful, but they're not yet scalable. You know, the price of a project is still very challenging. What I'm saying is actually rethinking what is grid infrastructure, because we tend to default to batteries as a solution. And I'm saying that computing can be a grid infrastructure, it should be perceived as a grid infrastructure, not just a user of energy, but actually a a technological or architectural element of the grid. And if you think of it like that, then you'll design the grid differently in place computing in these different places to provide that flexible load element. So then you now have a new tool to help get the grid to its future. That's what I think is the big opportunity and challenge, right? Reframing are thinking about what is grid infrastructure?
Sean McMahon 23:22
Is there a realm where batteries and the cryptocurrency mining would almost be competing for each other? I mean, it seems to me like if you're going to partner with a developer, and you're going to put a computer facility on site to take the load, that would be curtailed. Does that developer even need a battery anymore?
John Belizaire 23:37
The question in some, in some cases, they do not in some cases they do, it's project specific, and that area of the grid might need both. And so it's hard to say that a computing facility or a battery is sufficient. In any case, what I'm trying to say is, if you had a list of tools to use to fix problems on the grid, we need more tools. And more tools that are deployable today, scalable today, have the properties we need for the grid. And before there was this this element of crypto mining or, and it's not just crypto mining, it's an AI and machine learning anything that's patchable energy intensive, can actually be used in this way. So our business is not just about crypto, we are we are a crypto company today. But our business is really about a whole host of different batches of computing applications that can be placed in these facilities. And then the facilities are actually designed differently to play a very specific role, such that when you go through that list of tools, there's another one and there are going to be more there's going to be different types of batteries. There's going to be different types of roles. There's going to be different software systems to shift load, right, based on where there's more green energy and so forth. So there's lots of different ways and so the opportunity is to just expand those tools and be more open to the definition of What grid infrastructure can be?
Sean McMahon 25:04
So tell me a little bit more about you and the team at Soluna? What does your footprint look like right now?
John Belizaire 25:06
So we are a company that has a mix of backgrounds, I like to say I'm not an energy guy. Although now I play one on TV. My background is, is software. So I was been an entrepreneur for about 20 plus years, primarily in b2b software. And I got into the energy space, when the investor or owner of the company had a development company, and they had stranded power, we had this problem ourselves. And we had to put a multidisciplinary team together to go create a technology company to solve the problem. So we've got people from the energy business, project finance, backgrounds, software, data centers, etc. We're upwards, Around 30 people, we're going to get to, at the point that we're taping, we'll exit this year, over 100 people, and continuing to grow from there, we build teams in the areas where we build our data centers. So it's great for that, you know, we, we recruit young professionals, veterans, etc, to work in our facilities. And so I'm really proud and excited about the talent that we're attracting, there are lots of people drawn to us by the mission, what we're trying to do, they've been sort of looking for something like that, that they can really get excited about. And, you know, like our flag is, you know, we're, we're trying to get more renewable energy turned on on the grid, and computing is a better battery. And people are like, I get it. How do I join the mission? You know, that's, that's been great. We have fun, we're fairly distributed team, we're going to start to do some in person stuff to kind of, you know, gel the team as we grow at very high rates here.
Sean McMahon 26:48
Are you suggesting actually being in the same room as colleagues? I mean, that sounds great.
John Belizaire 26:52
Yeah, it’s like weird, right? What do you what are you talking about?
Sean McMahon 26:55
And just to check real quick, you guys just in the US here? Do you guys have international footprint?
John Belizaire 27:00
Now our plans are, we have a pipeline that spans the US and internationally. So we have activities going on in Europe, in Northern Africa. We have a team in Morocco as well, that's growing. And then we have folks in Europe, and then we have a team in the US as well spread across different states, we're starting, we're starting to hit just about every state at this point. And in terms of people,
Sean McMahon 27:25
one of the things that I like to ask all our guests here is just kind of bold predictions. So if you have any bold predictions for this segment of the market look looks like and say, you know, five to 10 years, you know, what would you say is every renewables project have some kind of computing facility next to it, like you said, it's just another tool in the bag was original, or?
John Belizaire 27:44
Yeah, I would, I would say in five to 10 years 80% of renewable projects will have some sort of flexible computing element to it. I think it's it's going to be a vertically integrated, it's where we started actually, as a company trying to solve that problem. And it was hard. I think that we're catalyzing this concept, people's imaginations, you know, we get powerplant owners coming to us, we call them power partners. Our power partners talk to us about specific assets where they have a lot of pain. But once we, you know, we show them what we can do, they start talking to us about greenfield projects that they're developing, they're like, hey, you know, in this particular region, we probably wouldn't do a project. But if you partner with us, we can actually go do that now. And we think it'll pencil out. And so we are creating additionality, with what we're what we're doing. And I think that will become a movement. additionality is a very powerful thing for the green energy transition. And I think, in a very short period of time, the concept of a power generation facility without these elements, and it could include batteries, too, is going to be sort of standard practice, if you will.
Sean McMahon 28:49
Yeah, I gotta imagine that your power partners are when you come knocking, it's kind of like found money, right?
John Belizaire 28:58
Exactly. I lose in 30%. And they can pick it back up again, like found money. So I can fix a, you know, an existing project. And I can deploy more capital, because now I can go build more projects than I could before. Because I've got this physical hedge like this, this this sort of integrated demand response solution for my facility. And what do you have going on in Morocco? So Morocco was where we started. We started as a developer, there was a development company we owned out there. And it had solar wind, a number of different projects. And there was this one wind project in the southern part of the country. That was literally stranded, there was no grid there, even close to that area. Why didn't build it? They tried a lot of different things to build it the country had announced that it was shifting to from being an energy importer to being an energy exporter. And they were going to do that by essentially exploiting their renewable energy resources. So they announced that they were going to move to get the grid down there. And so the question is, what do we do until that happens? And so we came up with this concept of vertically integrating a renewable plant with a data center. That data center is the primary off taker until the grid comes, you integrate the facility back into the grid, and then, you know, figure out what to do with the data center. Well, that's exactly the way it happened with us. And as a grid made its way right over the site. And we started modeling the project, it became clear that the computing was going to be a really scaled demand response where we can sort of absorb the intermittency. And that's what gave us the idea of taking just the computing part from that project, breaking the companies up, creating Celina computing where we would go after existing projects. And so that's that's how we got started. And so our teams have evolve to work with us on these these new initiatives.
Sean McMahon 30:44
So any other topics you want to cover?
John Belizaire 30:46
I think the only thing that I would say is, from a political standpoint, regulatory standpoint, there's a lot of you know, the President announced this executive order to really understand the industry more. And I think I just make a statement that whatever we can do to help, we understand the industry a lot, we understand, we're sort of right at right at the nexus of the integration of those two. And so we can talk a lot about that. I also think that the bill back better plan can be enhanced with some of these elements, because people didn't think about this, as you know, there's so much focus on batteries, and enabling that sort of thing on research that there are real solutions right now that can help the process. So that those are two things I would say, given this sort of congressional element to say that there's more to be done.
Sean McMahon 31:33
Great. Well, hey, get out there. Enjoy the rest of the sunny day and yeah.
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