More broadly, the region is watching uneasily as one of its biggest natural resources—a gigantic surplus of hydroelectric power—is inhaled by a sector that barely existed five years ago and which is routinely derided as the next dot-com bust, or this century’s version of the Dutch tulip craze, or, as New York Times columnist Paul Krugman put it in January, a Ponzi scheme. Indeed, even as Miehe was demonstrating his prospecting chops, bitcoin’s price was already in a swoon that would touch $5,900 and rekindle widespread doubts about the future of virtual currencies.
Cryptocurrency mining can be an expensive proposition, requiring computing hardware and electricity. Cryptojacking offers cybercriminals a way to steal computing power from other people to bypass the effort and expense. Cryptojacking software operates on computers in the background, with the only evidence of its presence signified by a user’s device overheating or slowing down.
In the earliest days of Bitcoin, mining was done with CPUs from normal desktop computers. Graphics cards, or graphics processing units (GPUs), are more effective at mining than CPUs and as Bitcoin gained popularity, GPUs became dominant. Eventually, hardware known as an ASIC, which stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, was designed specifically for mining bitcoin. The first ones were released in 2013 and have been improved upon since, with more efficient designs coming to market. Mining is competitive and today can only be done profitably with the latest ASICs. When using CPUs, GPUs, or even the older ASICs, the cost of energy consumption is greater than the revenue generated.
Bitmain gained an edge by supplying a superior product in large quantities, a feat that has eluded every other company in the industry. The Ordos facility is stuffed almost exclusively with Bitmain’s best performing rig, the Antminer S9. According to company specs, the S9 is capable of churning out 14 terahashes, or 14 trillion hashes, every second while consuming around 0.1 joules of energy per gigahash for a total of about 1,400 watts (about as much as a microwave oven consumes).
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.
When you pay someone in bitcoin, you set in motion a process of escalating, energy-intensive complexity. Your payment is basically an electronic message, which contains the complete lineage of your bitcoin, along with data about who you’re sending it to (and, if you choose, a small processing fee). That message gets converted by encryption software into a long string of letters and numbers, which is then broadcast to every miner on the bitcoin network (there are tens of thousands of them, all over the world). Each miner then gathers your encrypted payment message, along with any other payment messages on the network at the time (usually in batches of around 2,000), into what’s called a block. The miner then uses special software to authenticate each payment in the block—verifying, for example, that you owned the bitcoin you’re sending, and that you haven’t already sent that same bitcoin to someone else.
Of course, by the end of 2017, the players who were pouring into the basin weren’t interested in building 5-megawatt mines. According to Carlson, mining has now reached the stage where the minimum size for a new commercial mine, given the high levels of difficulty, will soon be 50 megawatts, enough for around 22,000 homes and bigger than one of Amazon Web Services’ immense data centers. Miehe, who has become a kind of broker for out-of-town miners and investors, was fielding calls and emails from much larger players. There were calls from China, where a recent government crackdown on cryptocurrency has miners trying to move operations as large as 200 megawatts to safer ground. And there was a flood of interest from players outside the sector, including big institutional investors from Wall Street, Miami, the Middle East, Europe and Japan, all eager to get in on a commodity that some believe could touch $100,000 by the end of the year. And not all the interest has been so civil. Stories abound of bitcoin miners using hardball tactics to get their mines up and running. Carlson, for example, says some foreign miners tried to bribe building and safety inspectors to let them cut corners on construction. “They are bringing suitcases full of cash,” Carlson says, adding that such ploys invariably backfire. Adds Miehe, “I mean, you know how they talk about the animal spirits—greed and fear? Well, right now, everyone is in full-greed mode.”
Malachi Salcido: The Local Talent Salcido, a Wenatchee native and building contractor, studied other miners before launching his own bitcoin operation in 2014. He’s now one of the biggest miners in the basin, and has worked hard to convince the community that bitcoin and the blockchain could transform the region into a technology hub. “What you can actually do with the technology, we’re only beginning to discover,” says Salcido, pictured above in one of his mines. The basin is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.” | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
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.
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.