Zhang walks up to a door between two shelves full of mining rigs, and we step through. “This is the hot side,” he tells me. We’re standing in an empty, brightly lit space that serves as the heat dump for the facility. The exhaust fans from all the mining machines on the other side are poking out through little holes in a metal wall, blasting hot air into the space, where it gets purged to the outside by another wall full of giant metal fans.
“These companies are using extraordinary amounts of electricity – typically thousands of times more electricity than an average residential customer would use,” a spokesperson for the New York State Department of Public Service told Wired. “The sheer amount of electricity being used is leading to higher costs for customers in small communities because of a limited supply of low-cost hydropower.”
Bitcoin is a digital asset designed to work in peer-to-peer transactions as a currency. Bitcoins have three qualities useful in a currency, according to The Economist in January 2015: they are "hard to earn, limited in supply and easy to verify". However, as of 2015 bitcoin functions more as a payment processor than as a currency.
Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as "miners," are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
From a widespread adoption standpoint: for the typical consumer, Bitcoin is technically challenging and cumbersome to use for the inexperienced. They also forfeit the consumer protections afforded by traditional credit and debt cards. Merchants already have incentive to accept it in the form of reduced fees for accepting payments over typical payment processors.
The attraction then, as now, was the Columbia River, which we can glimpse a few blocks to our left. Bitcoin mining—the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency—uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the river, about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America—and maybe the world.
Behind the scenes, the Bitcoin network is sharing a massive public ledger called the "block chain". This ledger contains every transaction ever processed which enables a user's computer to verify the validity of each transaction. The authenticity of each transaction is protected by digital signatures corresponding to the sending addresses therefore allowing all users to have full control over sending bitcoins.
Unfortunately, “participating” in Bitcoin mining isn’t the same thing as actually making money from it. The new ASIC chips on the market today are specifically designed for mining Bitcoin. They’re really good at Bitcoin mining, and every time someone adds a new ASIC-powered computer to the Bitcoin network, it makes Bitcoin mining that much more difficult.
These days, Miehe says, a serious miner wouldn’t even look at a site like that. As bitcoin’s soaring price has drawn in thousands of new players worldwide, the strange math at the heart of this cryptocurrency has grown steadily more complicated. Generating a single bitcoin takes a lot more servers than it used to—and a lot more power. Today, a half-megawatt mine, Miehe says, “is nothing.” The commercial miners now pouring into the valley are building sites with tens of thousands of servers and electrical loads of as much as 30 megawatts, or enough to power a neighborhood of 13,000 homes. And in the arms race that cryptocurrency mining has become, even these operations will soon be considered small-scale. Miehe knows of substantially larger mining projects in the basin backed by out-of-state investors from Wall Street, Europe and Asia whose prospecting strategy, as he puts it, amounts to “running around with a checkbook just trying to get in there and establish scale.”
During the last several years an incredible amount of Bitcoin mining power (hashrate) has come online making it harder for individuals to have enough hashrate to single-handedly solve a block and earn the payout reward. To compensate for this pool mining was introduced. Pooled mining is a mining approach where groups of individual miners contribute to the generation of a block, and then split the block reward according the contributed processing power.
In exchange for securing the network, and as the “lottery price” that serves as an incentive for burning this energy, each new block includes a special transaction. It’s this transaction that awards the miner with new bitcoins, which is how bitcoins first come into circulation. At Bitcoin’s launch, each new block awarded the miner with 50 bitcoins, and this amount halves every four years: Currently each block includes 12.5 new bitcoins. Additionally, miners get to keep any mining fees that were attached to the transactions they included in their blocks.
Bitcoin mining operations take a lot of effort and power, and the sheer amount of competition makes it difficult for newcomers to enter the race and profit. A new miner would not only need to have adequate computing power and the knowledge to use it to outcompete the competition, but would also need the extensive amount of capital necessary to fund the operations.
Just when it seemed that things couldn’t get any worse, they did. As mining costs were rising, bitcoin prices began to dive. The cryptocurrency was getting hammered by a string of scams, thefts and regulatory bans, along with a lot of infighting among the mining community over things like optimal block size. Through 2015, bitcoin prices hovered in the low hundreds. Margins grew so thin—and, in fact, occasionally went negative—that miners had to spend their coins as soon as they mined them to pay their power bills. Things eventually got so grim that Carlson had to dig into his precious reserves and liquidate “all my little stacks of bitcoin,” he recalls, ruefully. “To save the business, we sold it all.”
A “wallet” is basically the Bitcoin equivalent of a bank account. It allows you to receive bitcoins, store them, then send them to others. There are two main types of wallets, software and web. A software wallet is one that you install on your own computer or mobile device. You are in complete control over the security of your coins, but such wallets can sometimes be tricky to install and maintain.A web wallet, or hosted wallet, is one that is hosted by a third party. These are often much easier to use, but you have to trust the provider (host) to maintain high levels of security to protect your coins.
Bitcoin's most important characteristic is that it is decentralized. No single institution controls the bitcoin network. It is maintained by a group of volunteer coders, and run by an open network of dedicated computers spread around the world. This attracts individuals and groups that are uncomfortable with the control that banks or government institutions have over their money.
If the private key is lost, the bitcoin network will not recognize any other evidence of ownership; the coins are then unusable, and effectively lost. For example, in 2013 one user claimed to have lost 7,500 bitcoins, worth $7.5 million at the time, when he accidentally discarded a hard drive containing his private key. A backup of his key(s) would have prevented this.