For local cryptocurrency enthusiasts, these slings and arrows are all very much worth enduring. They believe not only that cryptocurrency will make them personally very wealthy, but also that this formerly out-of-the-way region has a real shot at becoming a center—and maybe the center—of a coming technology revolution, with the well-paid jobs and tech-fueled prosperity that usually flow only to gilded “knowledge” hubs like Seattle and San Francisco. Malachi Salcido, a Wenatchee building contractor who jumped into bitcoin in 2014 and is now one of the basin’s biggest players, puts it in sweeping terms. The basin, he tells me, is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.”
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The attraction then, as now, was the Columbia River, which we can glimpse a few blocks to our left. Bitcoin mining—the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency—uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the river, about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America—and maybe the world.
Though it is tempting to believe the media's spin that Satoshi Nakamoto is a lone, quixotic genius who created Bitcoin out of thin air, such innovations do not happen in a vacuum. All major scientific discoveries, no matter how original-seeming, were built on previously existing research. There are precursors to Bitcoin: Adam Back’s Hashcash, invented in 1997, and subsequently Wei Dai’s b-money, Nick Szabo’s bit-gold and Hal Finney’s Reusable Proof of Work. The Bitcoin white paper itself cites Hashcash and b-money, as well as various other works spanning several research fields.
Bitcoin mining is the process through which bitcoins are released to come into circulation. Basically, it involves solving a computationally difficult puzzle to discover a new block, which is added to the blockchain, and receiving a reward in the form of few bitcoins. The block reward was 50 new bitcoins in 2009; it decreases every four years. As more and more bitcoins are created, the difficulty of the mining process – that is, the amount of computing power involved – increases. The mining difficulty began at 1.0 with Bitcoin's debut back in 2009; at the end of the year, it was only 1.18. As of April 2017, the mining difficulty is over 4.24 billion. Once, an ordinary desktop computer sufficed for the mining process; now, to combat the difficulty level, miners must use faster hardware like Application-Specific Integrated Circuits (ASIC), more advanced processing units like Graphic Processing Units (GPUs), etc.
How hard are the puzzles involved in mining? Well, that depends on how much effort is being put into mining across the network. The difficulty of the mining can be adjusted, and is adjusted by the protocol every 2016 blocks, or roughly every 2 weeks. The difficulty adjusts itself with the aim of keeping the rate of block discovery constant. Thus if more computational power is employed in mining, then the difficulty will adjust upwards to make mining harder. And if computational power is taken off of the network, the opposite happens. The difficulty adjusts downward to make mining easier.
The best mining sites were the old fruit warehouses—the basin is as famous for its apples as for its megawatts—but those got snapped up early. So Miehe, a tall, gregarious 38-year-old who would go on to set up a string of mines here, learned to look for less obvious solutions. He would roam the side streets and back roads, scanning for defunct businesses that might have once used a lot of power. An old machine shop, say. A closed-down convenience store. Or this: Miehe slows the Land Rover and points to a shuttered carwash sitting forlornly next to a Taco Bell. It has the space, he says. And with the water pumps and heaters, “there’s probably a ton of power distributed not very far from here,” Miehe tells me. “That could be a bitcoin mine.”
No. 5: Coinbase (online exchange). Online exchanges are, by and large, less secure than the methods described below. But Coinbase seems to have learned from the lessons of its predecessors, and is one of the biggest bitcoin exchanges in the world. It's also user friendly; not only can you buy, sell, exchange and trade bitcoin on Coinbase, but you can store your bitcoin in a wallet there, too.
To form a distributed timestamp server as a peer-to-peer network, bitcoin uses a proof-of-work system. This work is often called bitcoin mining. The signature is discovered rather than provided by knowledge. This process is energy intensive. Electricity can consume more than 90% of operating costs for miners. A data center in China, planned mostly for bitcoin mining, is expected to require up to 135 megawatts of power.
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.”
During mining, your Bitcoin mining hardware runs a cryptographic hashing function (two rounds of SHA256) on what is called a block header. For each new hash that is tried, the mining software will use a different number as the random element of the block header, this number is called the nonce. Depending on the nonce and what else is in the block the hashing function will yield a hash which looks something like this:
Gradually, people moved to GPU mining. A GPU (graphics processing unit) is a special component added to computers to carry out more complex calculations. GPUs were originally intended to allow gamers to run computer games with intense graphics requirements. Because of their architecture, they became popular in the field of cryptography, and around 2011, people also started using them to mine bitcoins. For reference, the mining power of one GPU equals that of around 30 CPUs.
Market Risk: Like with any investment, Bitcoin values can fluctuate. Indeed, the value of the currency has seen wild swings in price over its short existence. Subject to high volume buying and selling on exchanges, it has a high sensitivity to “news." According to the CFPB, the price of bitcoins fell by 61% in a single day in 2013, while the one-day price drop in 2014 has been as big as 80%.
The trick, though, was finding a location where you could put all that cheap power to work. You needed an existing building, because in those days, when bitcoin was trading for just a few dollars, no one could afford to build something new. You needed space for a few hundred high-speed computer servers, and also for the heavy-duty cooling system to keep them from melting down as they churned out the trillions of calculations necessary to mine bitcoin. Above all, you needed a location that could handle a lot of electricity—a quarter of a megawatt, maybe, or even a half a megawatt, enough to light up a couple hundred homes.
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.”
The other two BitFury mines are in Tbilisi, in the Republic of Georgia, where the weather is much warmer. According to Vavilov, the company has developed a two-phase immersion cooling technology with their subsidiary, Allied Control. The system bathes the mining machines in a dielectric heat-transfer liquid called Novec, which cools the computers as it evaporates. The system is now deployed at the Georgia data centers.
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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.
Apart from being an intriguing mystery, this has real-world ramifications. u/Sick_Silk believes that the movement of funds may be at least partially responsible for the recent price decline seen in August, and whether that’s true or not, it’s certainly the case that 0.52% of the entire supply of Bitcoin is more than enough to seriously manipulate or destabilize the market. Indeed, the funds are already worth around $80 million less since the report went public.
Security Risk: Bitcoin exchanges are entirely digital and, as with any virtual system, are at risk from hackers, malware and operational glitches. If a thief gains access to a Bitcoin owner's computer hard drive and steals his private encryption key, he could transfer the stolen Bitcoins to another account. (Users can prevent this only if bitcoins are stored on a computer which is not connected to the internet, or else by choosing to use a paper wallet – printing out the Bitcoin private keys and addresses, and not keeping them on a computer at all.) Hackers can also target Bitcoin exchanges, gaining access to thousands of accounts and digital wallets where bitcoins are stored. One especially notorious hacking incident took place in 2014, when Mt. Gox, a Bitcoin exchange in Japan, was forced to close down after millions of dollars worth of bitcoins were stolen.
Network nodes can validate transactions, add them to their copy of the ledger, and then broadcast these ledger additions to other nodes. To achieve independent verification of the chain of ownership each network node stores its own copy of the blockchain. About every 10 minutes, a new group of accepted transactions, called a block, is created, added to the blockchain, and quickly published to all nodes, without requiring central oversight. This allows bitcoin software to determine when a particular bitcoin was spent, which is needed to prevent double-spending. A conventional ledger records the transfers of actual bills or promissory notes that exist apart from it, but the blockchain is the only place that bitcoins can be said to exist in the form of unspent outputs of transactions.:ch. 5