The Mid-Columbia Basin isn’t the only location where the virtual realm of cryptocurrency is colliding with the real world of megawatts and real estate. In places like China, Venezuela and Iceland, cheap land and even cheaper electricity have resulted in bustling mining hubs. But the basin, by dint of its early start, has emerged as one of the biggest boomtowns. By the end of 2018, according to some estimates, miners here could account for anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of all bitcoin mining in the world, and impressive shares of other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin. And as with any boomtown, that success has created tensions. There have been disputes between miners and locals, bankruptcies and bribery attempts, lawsuits, even a kind of intensifying guerrilla warfare between local utility crews and a shadowy army of bootleg miners who set up their servers in basements and garages and max out the local electrical grids.
A bitcoin is defined by a sequence of digitally signed transactions that began with the bitcoin's creation, as a block reward. The owner of a bitcoin transfers it by digitally signing it over to the next owner using a bitcoin transaction, much like endorsing a traditional bank check. A payee can examine each previous transaction to verify the chain of ownership. Unlike traditional check endorsements, bitcoin transactions are irreversible, which eliminates risk of chargeback fraud.
Miehe still runs his original mine, a half-megawatt operation not far from the carwash. But his main job these days is managing hosting sites for other miners and connecting outsiders with insiders—and he’s OK with that. He sold off some of his bitcoin stack, just after Christmas. He’s still bullish on crypto, and on the basin’s long-term prospects. But he no longer has any appetite for the race for scale. Gone are the glory days when commercial miners could self-finance with their own stacks. Today, you need outside financing—debt—which, for Miehe, who now has two young children, would mean an unacceptable level of stress. “I’ve already done it,” he says. “My entire data center was built with bitcoin, from nothing. I’ve already won enough for what I was looking for out of mining.” He pauses. “The risk and reward is getting pretty great,” he says. “And I’m not sure I want to be on the front line of that battle.”
Due to the widespread proliferation of the internet and mobile devices, more people in the developing world now have access to web services. It therefore follows that the number of Bitcoin users should increase as a result. Citizens who find it inconvenient to access traditional banking services will seek out virtual systems such as Bitcoin, and as internet usage increases within the developing world, one can only predict that the adoption of Bitcoin (and cryptocurrencies generally) will go viral.
And, inevitably, there was a growing tension with the utilities, which were finally grasping the scale of the miners’ ambitions. In 2014, the public utility district in Chelan County received requests from would-be miners for a total of 220 megawatts—a startling development in a county whose 70,000 residents were then using barely 200 megawatts. Similar patterns were emerging across the river in neighboring Douglas and Grant counties, where power is also cheap.
The incremental complexity and technological know-how needed for this method are both downsides to the paper wallet approach. Cold storage solutions and hardware wallets are less nimble than other options, too; if the price of bitcoin were crashing, for example, you might find yourself slower to the draw than if you merely kept your BTC on a site like Coinbase.
One of Bitcoin’s most appealing features is its ruthless verification process, which greatly minimizes the risk of fraud. Since Bitcoin is decentralized, volunteers—referred to as “miners”—constantly verify and update the blockchain. Once a specific amount of transactions are verified, another block is added to the blockchain and business continues per usual.
In March 2013 the blockchain temporarily split into two independent chains with different rules. The two blockchains operated simultaneously for six hours, each with its own version of the transaction history. Normal operation was restored when the majority of the network downgraded to version 0.7 of the bitcoin software. The Mt. Gox exchange briefly halted bitcoin deposits and the price dropped by 23% to $37 before recovering to previous level of approximately $48 in the following hours. The US Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) established regulatory guidelines for "decentralized virtual currencies" such as bitcoin, classifying American bitcoin miners who sell their generated bitcoins as Money Service Businesses (MSBs), that are subject to registration or other legal obligations. In April, exchanges BitInstant and Mt. Gox experienced processing delays due to insufficient capacity resulting in the bitcoin price dropping from $266 to $76 before returning to $160 within six hours. The bitcoin price rose to $259 on 10 April, but then crashed by 83% to $45 over the next three days. On 15 May 2013, US authorities seized accounts associated with Mt. Gox after discovering it had not registered as a money transmitter with FinCEN in the US. On 23 June 2013, the US Drug Enforcement Administration (DEA) listed 11.02 bitcoins as a seized asset in a United States Department of Justice seizure notice pursuant to 21 U.S.C. § 881. This marked the first time a government agency had seized bitcoin. The FBI seized about 26,000 bitcoins in October 2013 from the dark web website Silk Road during the arrest of Ross William Ulbricht. Bitcoin's price rose to $755 on 19 November and crashed by 50% to $378 the same day. On 30 November 2013 the price reached $1,163 before starting a long-term crash, declining by 87% to $152 in January 2015. On 5 December 2013, the People's Bank of China prohibited Chinese financial institutions from using bitcoins. After the announcement, the value of bitcoins dropped, and Baidu no longer accepted bitcoins for certain services. Buying real-world goods with any virtual currency had been illegal in China since at least 2009.