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.
That opportunity may not last. Huffman, who is also a former utility executive, argues that ever-cheaper power rates in other states, like California, could undercut the basin’s appeal to blockchain miners, who may begin to look for other places to mine. For that reason, Huffman argues that the basin should be actively recruiting more miners, even if it means importing power. “I think there’s a window here,” Huffman says, “and it’s unknown how long that window will be open.” Yet he, too, knows that any such talk will lead to criticism that the basin is yoking its future to a volatile sector that, for many, remains a chimera. “Some folks think that bitcoin is just a scam,” Huffman concedes. “And in the conversation, you usually don’t get past that.”
As soon as a miner finds a solution and a majority of other miners confirm it, this winning block is accepted by the network as the “official” block for those particular transactions. The official block is then added to previous blocks, creating an ever-lengthening chain of blocks, called the “blockchain,” that serves as a master ledger for all bitcoin transactions. (Most cryptocurrencies have their own blockchain.) And, importantly, the winning miner is rewarded with brand-new bitcoins (when Carlson got started, in mid-2012, the reward was 50 bitcoins) and all the processing fees. The network then moves on to the next batch of payments and the process repeats—and, in theory, will keep repeating, once every 10 minutes or so, until miners mine all 21 million of the bitcoins programmed into the system.
The primary purpose of mining is to allow Bitcoin nodes to reach a secure, tamper-resistant consensus. Mining is also the mechanism used to introduce bitcoins into the system. Miners are paid transaction fees as well as a subsidy of newly created coins, called block rewards. This both serves the purpose of disseminating new coins in a decentralized manner as well as motivating people to provide security for the system through mining.
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.
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."
Unauthorized spending is mitigated by bitcoin's implementation of public-private key cryptography. For example; when Alice sends a bitcoin to Bob, Bob becomes the new owner of the bitcoin. Eve observing the transaction might want to spend the bitcoin Bob just received, but she cannot sign the transaction without the knowledge of Bob's private key.
Speculation drives numbers. Many Bitcoin users are holding onto their bitcoins in hopes of selling them off for an enormous profit one day. With news articles portraying Bitcoin millionaires as lucky kids who got in early, you can’t really blame them. For example, if you had spent your $5 latte money on 2,000 bitcoins one morning in 2010, they would be worth about $5.4 million today. Makes you really wish you’d managed your Starbucks budget better, doesn’t it?
Price fluctuations, which have been common in Bitcoin since the day it was created eight years ago, saddle miners with risk and uncertainty. And that burden is shared by chip manufacturers, especially ones like Bitmain, which invest the time and money in a full custom design. According to Nishant Sharma, the international marketing manager at Bitmain, when the price of bitcoin was breaking records this spring, sales of S9 rigs doubled. But again, that is not a trend the company can afford to bet on.
Granted, all that real-worlding and road-hitting is a little hard to visualize just now. The winter storms that have turned the Cascade Mountains a dazzling white have also turned the construction site into a reddish quagmire that drags at workers and equipment. There have also been permitting snafus, delayed utility hookups, and a lawsuit, recently settled, by impatient investors. But Carlson seems unperturbed. “They are actually making it work,” he told me earlier, referring to the mud-caked workers. “In a normal project, they might just say, ‘Let’s just wait till spring,’” Carlson adds. “But in bitcoin and blockchain, there is no stopping.” Indeed, demand for hosting services in the basin is so high that a desperate miner offered Carlson a Lamborghini if Carlson would bump him to the head of the pod waiting list. “I didn’t take the offer,” Carlson assures me. “And I like Lamborghinis!”
The use of bitcoin by criminals has attracted the attention of financial regulators, legislative bodies, law enforcement, and the media. In the United States, the FBI prepared an intelligence assessment, the SEC issued a pointed warning about investment schemes using virtual currencies, and the U.S. Senate held a hearing on virtual currencies in November 2013. The U.S. government claimed that bitcoin was used to facilitate payments related to Russian interference in the 2016 United States elections.
A CMU researcher estimated that in 2012, 4.5% to 9% of all transactions on all exchanges in the world were for drug trades on a single dark web drugs market, Silk Road. Child pornography, murder-for-hire services, and weapons are also allegedly available on black market sites that sell in bitcoin. Due to the anonymous nature and the lack of central control on these markets, it is hard to know whether the services are real or just trying to take the bitcoins.
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.