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KENNERDELL, Pa., March 21 (Reuters) - The vast amounts of electricity needed to mine bitcoin has ignited a debate about whether the energy behind the operation is worth the potential environmental costs.

But one company in western Pennsylvania believes that they have found a way to put crypto mining to work to clean up their community.

Stronghold Digital Mining (SDIG.O) uses waste left behind by decades-old coal power plants to generate electricity that powers hundreds of supercomputers working to mine bitcoin.

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Bitcoin, the world’s largest peer-to-peer digital currency, is issued through a process called mining, which requires computers to solve complex puzzles in exchange for the virtual currency. Powering those computers involves large amounts of electricity – in fact, more electricity is used annually to create bitcoin than is used in the entire country of Finland.

Stronghold Digital Mining co-chairman Bill Spence stands at the company's Russellton mine site in Cheswick, Pennsylvania, U.S., March 8, 2022. Picture taken March 8, 2022. REUTERS/Alan Freed

"The bitcoin mining network itself is the largest decentralized computer network in the world, and it's power hungry, so co-locating bitcoin mining and a power plant makes a lot of sense," said Greg Beard, chief executive officer of Stronghold.

Coal ash, the byproduct left over from burning coal to produce electricity, can leach into groundwater and pollute waterways, and contains heavy metals considered to be carcinogens.

Stronghold collects coal ash from a nearby mine and processes it at a waste coal processing facility. After the coal ash is sorted and crushed, it goes to a boiler building where it is burned to generate the electricity to power the company’s bitcoin mining operation.

"I think this is a perfect niche for crypto," said Bill Spence, co-chairman of Stronghold Digital Mining.

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Reporting by Dan Fastenberg and Eric Cox in Kennerdell, Pennsylvania; writing by Hannah Lang in Washington; Editing by Mark Porter

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.