With no ties to a national economy and lofty goals, Bitcoin's price is famously volatile. Prices have soared and plummeted in the wake of various national policies, financial deals, competing cryptocurrencies, and fluctuating public opinion. On the other hand, as many sovereign nations find themselves with currencies that are also vulnerable, the citizens of countries such as China and Venezuela are turning increasingly to virtual currencies.
What bitcoin miners actually do could be better described as competitive bookkeeping. Miners build and maintain a gigantic public ledger containing a record of every bitcoin transaction in history. Every time somebody wants to send bitcoins to somebody else, the transfer has to be validated by miners: They check the ledger to make sure the sender isn’t transferring money she doesn’t have. If the transfer checks out, miners add it to the ledger. Finally, to protect that ledger from getting hacked, miners seal it behind layers and layers of computational work—too much for a would-be fraudster to possibly complete.
Meanwhile, the miners in the basin have embarked on some image polishing. Carlson and Salcido, in particular, have worked hard to placate utility officialdom. Miners have agreed to pay heavy hook-up fees and to finance some of the needed infrastructure upgrades. They’ve also labored to build a case for the sector’s broader economic benefits—like sales tax revenues. They say mining could help offset some of the hundreds of jobs lost when the region’s other big power user—the huge Alcoa aluminum smelter just south of Wenatchee—was idled a few years ago.
Bitcoin Mining is a peer-to-peer computer process used to secure and verify bitcoin transactions—payments from one user to another on a decentralized network. Mining involves adding bitcoin transaction data to Bitcoin's global public ledger of past transactions. Each group of transactions is called a block. Blocks are secured by Bitcoin miners and build on top of each other forming a chain. This ledger of past transactions is called the blockchain. The blockchain serves to confirm transactions to the rest of the network as having taken place. Bitcoin nodes use the blockchain to distinguish legitimate Bitcoin transactions from attempts to re-spend coins that have already been spent elsewhere.
Since its launch in 2009, Bitcoin has proven to be a profitable investment for those who owned it initially. Having bought it for only $50 back then, one can now earn high revenues, as now its price has grown hundreds of times larger. Observing the popularity of BTC to USD exchange operations, there are immense opportunities to gain benefits from the Bitcoin trade. After the coin was launched, it cost $0.003 on April 25, 2010, at BitcoinMarket.com, which was the first cryptocurrency exchange. Starting at that time, the Bitcoin to dollar exchange rate has increased dramatically, and some of the initial owners gained earnings of over thousand percent. Now, while some users may be simply attracted by the potential of growing prices, many buyers believe that the currency itself has a high level of volatility. According to some financial specialists, it is even more volatile than gold. And some individuals believe that Bitcoin has the potential to replace fiat money in the future.
In 2014, researchers at the University of Kentucky found "robust evidence that computer programming enthusiasts and illegal activity drive interest in bitcoin, and find limited or no support for political and investment motives". Australian researchers have estimated that 25% of all bitcoin users and 44% of all bitcoin transactions are associated with illegal activity as of April 2017. There were an estimated 24 million bitcoin users primarily using bitcoin for illegal activity. They held $8 billion worth of bitcoin, and made 36 million transactions valued at $72 billion. A group of researches analyzed bitcoin transactions in 2016 and came to a conclusion that "some recent concerns regarding the use of bitcoin for illegal transactions at the present time might be overstated".
Many also fear that the new mines will suck up so much of the power surplus that is currently exported that local rates will have to rise. In fact, miners’ appetite for power is growing so rapidly that the three counties have instituted surcharges for extra infrastructure, and there is talk of moratoriums on new mines. There is also talk of something that would have been inconceivable just a few years ago: buying power from outside suppliers. That could mean the end of decades of ultracheap power—all for a new, highly volatile sector that some worry may not be around long anyway. Indeed, one big fear, says Dennis Bolz, a Chelan County Public Utility commissioner, is that a prolonged price collapse will cause miners to abandon the basin—and leave ratepayers with “an infrastructure that may or may not have a use.”
Let’s start with what it’s not doing. Your computer is not blasting through the cavernous depths of the internet in search of digital ore that can be fashioned into bitcoin bullion. There is no ore, and bitcoin mining doesn’t involve extracting or smelting anything. It’s called mining only because the people who do it are the ones who get new bitcoins, and because bitcoin is a finite resource liberated in small amounts over time, like gold, or anything else that is mined. (The size of each batch of coins drops by half roughly every four years, and around 2140, it will be cut to zero, capping the total number of bitcoins in circulation at 21 million.) But the analogy ends there.
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.
A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. When finished, the prefabricated wood-frame structure, roughly 12 by 48 feet, will be equipped with hundreds of high-speed servers that collectively draw a little over a megawatt of power and, in theory, will be capable of producing around 80 bitcoins a month. Carlson himself won’t be the miner; his company, Giga-Watt, will run the pod as a hosting site for other miners. By summer, Giga-Watt expects to have 24 pods here churning out bitcoins and other cryptocurrencies, most of which use the same computing-intensive, cryptographically secured protocol called the blockchain. “We’re right where the rubber hits the road with blockchain,” Carlson shouts as we step inside the project’s first completed pod and stand between the tall rack of toaster-size servers and a bank of roaring cooling fans. The main use of blockchain technology now is to keep a growing electronic ledger of every single bitcoin transaction ever made. But many miners see it as the record-keeping mechanism of the future. “We’re where the blockchain goes from that virtual concept to something that’s real in the world,” says Carlson, “something that somebody had to build and is actually running.”
To cut through some of the confusion surrounding bitcoin, we need to separate it into two components. On the one hand, you have bitcoin-the-token, a snippet of code that represents ownership of a digital concept – sort of like a virtual IOU. On the other hand, you have bitcoin-the-protocol, a distributed network that maintains a ledger of balances of bitcoin-the-token. Both are referred to as "bitcoin."
For one, proof of work prevents miners from creating bitcoins out of thin air: they must burn real energy to earn them. And two, proof of work ossifies Bitcoin’s history. If an attacker were to try and change a transaction that happened in the past, that attacker would have to redo all of the work that has been done since to catch up and establish the longest chain. This is practically impossible and is why miners are said to “secure” the Bitcoin network.
A few years ago, CPU and GPU mining became completely obsolete when FPGAs came around. An FPGA is a Field Programmable Gate Array, which can produce computational power similar to most GPUs, while being far more energy‐efficient than graphics cards. Due to its mining efficiency, and ability to consume relatively lesser energy, many miners shifted to the use of FPGAs.
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
Steve Wright and John Stoll: The Dam Masters Wright, left, and Stoll, pictured at the Rocky Reach Dam, are general manager and head of customer utilities with the Chelan County Public Utility District, respectively. In the past year, miners have made inquiries or requests for power totaling two-thirds as much as the basin’s three county utilities now generate. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
But Bolz, a longtime critic of cryptocurrency, says local concerns go beyond economics: Many residents he hears from aren’t keen to see so much public power sold to an industry whose chief product is, in their minds, of value only to speculators and criminals. “I mean, this is a conservative community, and they’re like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with dollars?’” says Bolz. “If you just went out and did a poll of Chelan County, and asked people, ‘Do you want us to be involved in the bitcoin industry, they would say not only ‘No,’ but ‘Hell no.’”
In order to have an edge in the mining competition, the hardware used for Bitcoin mining has undergone various developments, starting with the use the CPU. The CPU can perform many different types of calculations including Bitcoin mining. In the beginning, mining with a CPU was the only way to mine Bitcoins and was done using the original Satoshi client. Unfortunately, with the nature of most CPU in terms of multi-tasking, and its optimization for task switching, miners innovated on many fronts and for years now, CPU mining has been relatively futile.
Nigel Dodd argues in The Social Life of Bitcoin that the essence of the bitcoin ideology is to remove money from social, as well as governmental, control. Dodd quotes a YouTube video, with Roger Ver, Jeff Berwick, Charlie Shrem, Andreas Antonopoulos, Gavin Wood, Trace Meyer and other proponents of bitcoin reading The Declaration of Bitcoin's Independence. The declaration includes a message of crypto-anarchism with the words: "Bitcoin is inherently anti-establishment, anti-system, and anti-state. Bitcoin undermines governments and disrupts institutions because bitcoin is fundamentally humanitarian."
David Golumbia says that the ideas influencing bitcoin advocates emerge from right-wing extremist movements such as the Liberty Lobby and the John Birch Society and their anti-Central Bank rhetoric, or, more recently, Ron Paul and Tea Party-style libertarianism. Steve Bannon, who owns a "good stake" in bitcoin, considers it to be "disruptive populism. It takes control back from central authorities. It's revolutionary."
The amount of new bitcoin released with each mined block is called the block reward. The block reward is halved every 210,000 blocks, or roughly every 4 years. The block reward started at 50 in 2009, is now 12.5 in 2018, and will continue to decrease. This diminishing block reward will result in a total release of bitcoin that approaches 21 million.
In 2013, Mark Gimein estimated electricity consumption to be about 40.9 megawatts (982 megawatt-hours a day). In 2014, Hass McCook estimated 80.7 megawatts (80,666 kW). As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166.7 megawatts (1.46 terawatt-hours per year).
Bitcoin (BTC) is a cryptocurrency which is regarded as the world’s first decentralized digital currency. It was created by a pseudonymous person or persons named Satoshi Nakamoto in 2009 and has since gone on to become the world’s most popular cryptocurrency by market cap. Bitcoin is a deflationary currency whose issuance is capped at a total supply of 21 million coins. Each Bitcoin can be divided into one million units, with the smallest unit of 0.00000001 known as a satoshi in homage to its creator. The distributed public ledger that Bitcoin uses to record transactions is known as a blockchain and Bitcoin can be spent at over 100,000 online merchants and can also be held as an investment. Bitcoin is traded for fiat and other cryptocurrencies on various exchanges but can also be used to facilitate p2p transactions. Each transaction incurs a small transaction fee to cover the cost of sending Bitcoin over the blockchain ledger, with the fee going to miners tasked with keeping the network secure.
Deanonymisation is a strategy in data mining in which anonymous data is cross-referenced with other sources of data to re-identify the anonymous data source. Along with transaction graph analysis, which may reveal connections between bitcoin addresses (pseudonyms), there is a possible attack which links a user's pseudonym to its IP address. If the peer is using Tor, the attack includes a method to separate the peer from the Tor network, forcing them to use their real IP address for any further transactions. The attack makes use of bitcoin mechanisms of relaying peer addresses and anti-DoS protection. The cost of the attack on the full bitcoin network is under €1500 per month.
On paper, the Mid-Columbia Basin really did look like El Dorado for Carlson and the other miners who began to trickle in during the first years of the boom. The region’s five huge hydroelectric dams, all owned by public utility districts, generate nearly six times as much power as the region’s residents and businesses can use. Most of the surplus is exported, at high prices, to markets like Seattle or Los Angeles, which allows the utilities to sell power locally at well below its cost of production. Power is so cheap here that people heat their homes with electricity, despite bitterly cold winters, and farmers have been able to irrigate the semi-arid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. (The local newspaper proudly claims to be published in “the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle on the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”) And, importantly, it had already attracted several power-hungry industries, notably aluminum smelting and, starting in the mid-2000s, data centers for tech giants like Microsoft and Intuit.
"While crypto markets have seen rapid growth, such trading platforms don’t seem to be well-enough prepared in terms of security," said Hong Seong-ki, head of the country's cryptocurrency response team South Services Commission. "We’re trying to legislate the most urgent and important things first, aiming for money-laundering prevention and investor protection. The bill should be passed as soon as possible."
The other reason is safety. Looking at 2009 alone, 32,489 blocks were mined; at the then-reward rate of 50 BTC per block, the total payout in 2009 was 1,624,500 BTC, which at today’s prices is over $900 million. One may conclude that only Satoshi and perhaps a few other people were mining through 2009, and that they possess a majority of that $900 million worth of BTC. Someone in possession of that much BTC could become a target of criminals, especially since bitcoins are less like stocks and more like cash, where the private keys needed to authorize spending could be printed out and literally kept under a mattress. While it's likely the inventor of Bitcoin would take precautions to make any extortion-induced transfers traceable, remaining anonymous is a good way for Satoshi to limit exposure.
Several news outlets have asserted that the popularity of bitcoins hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal goods. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that bitcoin's anonymity encourages money laundering and other crimes, "If you open up a hole like bitcoin, then all the nefarious activity will go through that hole, and no government can allow that." He's also said that if "you regulate it so you couldn’t engage in money laundering and all these other [crimes], there will be no demand for Bitcoin. By regulating the abuses, you are going to regulate it out of existence. It exists because of the abuses."
Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
With the Antminers needing to stay below 38 °C, Mongolia is not the ideal location for a mining facility. It had been above 40 °C for several days when I visited in July. And in the winter, it can fall to –20 °C, cold enough for Bitmain to add insulation to the facilities. Dust is a problem as well, which is why the interior of every warehouse I walk through is veiled in a fine fabric filter.
Bitcoin prices were negatively affected by several hacks or thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges, including thefts from Coincheck in January 2018, Coinrail and Bithumb in June, and Bancor in July. For the first six months of 2018, $761 million worth of cryptocurrencies was reported stolen from exchanges. Bitcoin's price was affected even though other cryptocurrencies were stolen at Coinrail and Bancor, as investors worried about the security of cryptocurrency exchanges.