On 24 August 2017 (at block 481,824), Segregated Witness (SegWit) went live. Transactions contain some data which is only used to verify the transaction, and does not otherwise effect the movement of coins. SegWit introduced a new transaction format that moved this data into a new field in a backwards-compatible way. The segregated data, the so-called witness, is not sent to non-SegWit nodes and therefore does not form part of the blockchain as seen by legacy nodes. This lowers the size of the average transaction in such nodes' view, thereby increasing the block size without incurring the hard fork implied by other proposals for block size increases. Thus, per computer scientist Jochen Hoenicke, the actual block capacity depends on the ratio of SegWit transactions in the block, and on the ratio of signature data. Based on his estimate, if the ratio of SegWit transactions is 50%, the block capacity may be 1.25 megabytes. According to Hoenicke, if native SegWit addresses from Bitcoin Core version 0.16.0 are used, and SegWit adoption reaches 90% to 95%, a block size of up to 1.8 megabytes is possible.
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.
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.
What separated these survivors from the quitters and the double-downers, Carlson concluded, was simply the price of electricity. Survivors either lived in or had moved to places like China or Iceland or Venezuela, where electricity was cheap enough for bitcoin to be profitable. Carlson knew that if he could find a place where the power wasn’t just cheap, but really cheap, he’d be able to mine bitcoin both profitably and on an industrial scale.
While heat is definitely an issue for the mining farm in Ordos, the electricity there is dirt cheap, only 4 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, with government subsidies. That’s about one-fifth of the average price in the United Kingdom. The only other costs for the facility are the rigs themselves and the salary of the few dozen staff that keeps them operational.
All of which leaves the basin’s utilities caught between a skeptical public and a voracious, energy-intense new sector that, as Bolz puts it, is “looking at us in a predatory sense.” Indeed, every utility executive knows that to reject an application for a load, even one load so large as to require new transmission lines or out-of-area imports, is to invite a major legal fight. “If you can afford 100 megawatts,” Bolz says, “you can afford a lot of attorneys.”
Because the target is such an unwieldy number with tons of digits, people generally use a simpler number to express the current target. This number is called the mining difficulty. The mining difficulty expresses how much harder the current block is to generate compared to the first block. So a difficulty of 70000 means to generate the current block you have to do 70000 times more work than Satoshi Nakamoto had to do generating the first block. To be fair, back then mining hardware and algorithms were a lot slower and less optimized.
But, as always, the miners’ biggest challenge came from bitcoin itself. The mere presence of so much new mining in the Mid-Columbia Basin substantially expanded the network’s total mining power; for a time, Carlson’s mine alone accounted for a quarter of the global bitcoin mining capacity. But this rising calculating power also caused mining difficulty to skyrocket—from January 2013 to January 2014, it increased one thousandfold—which forced miners to expand even faster. And bitcoin’s rising price was now drawing in new miners, especially in China, where power is cheap. By the middle of 2014, Carlson says, he’d quadrupled the number of servers in his mine, yet had seen his once-massive share of the market fall below 1 percent.
In January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the following text: "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks." This note has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18