Even in the recent price crash, the miners have maintained their upbeat attitude, in part because they’ve died this death a few times before. In February, a day after bitcoin’s price dipped below $6,000, I checked in with Carlson to see how he was dealing with the huge sell-off. In a series of long texts, he expressed only optimism. The market correction, he argued, had been inevitable, given the rapid price increase. He noted that mining costs in the basin remain so low—still just a little above $2,000 per coin—that prices have a way to fall before bitcoin stops being worth mining there. Carlson is, he told me, “100 percent confident” the price will surpass the $20,000 level we saw before Christmas. “The question, as always, is how long will it take.”
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.
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.
To heighten financial privacy, a new bitcoin address can be generated for each transaction. For example, hierarchical deterministic wallets generate pseudorandom "rolling addresses" for every transaction from a single seed, while only requiring a single passphrase to be remembered to recover all corresponding private keys. Researchers at Stanford and Concordia universities have also shown that bitcoin exchanges and other entities can prove assets, liabilities, and solvency without revealing their addresses using zero-knowledge proofs. "Bulletproofs," a version of Confidential Transactions proposed by Greg Maxwell, have been tested by Professor Dan Boneh of Stanford. Other solutions such Merkelized Abstract Syntax Trees (MAST), pay-to-script-hash (P2SH) with MERKLE-BRANCH-VERIFY, and "Tail Call Execution Semantics", have also been proposed to support private smart contracts.
For all that potential, however, the basin’s nascent mining community was beset by the sort of troubles that you would have found in any other boomtown. Mining technology was still so new that the early operations were constantly crashing. There was a growing, often bitter competition for mining sites that had adequate power, and whose landlords didn’t flip out when the walls got “Swiss-cheesed” with ventilation holes. There was the constant fear of electrical overloads, as coin-crazed miners pushed power systems to the limit—as, for example, when one miner nearly torched an old laundromat in downtown Wenatchee.
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.”
Bitcoin solves the "double spending problem" of electronic currencies (in which digital assets can easily be copied and re-used) through an ingenious combination of cryptography and economic incentives. In electronic fiat currencies, this function is fulfilled by banks, which gives them control over the traditional system. With bitcoin, the integrity of the transactions is maintained by a distributed and open network, owned by no-one.
Bitcoin is the first cryptocurrency, a concept that was discussed in the late 90s. The first Bitcoin specification and proof of concept was published in 2009 in a cryptography mailing list. The concept was presented by a person or group known as Satoshi Nakamoto. The real identity of Nakamoto has been a mystery since that time, with various theories on who the individual or group may be.
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.
The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
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.
Benny: The Rogue Miner “Benny,” a self-taught, 20-something computer whiz, set up three mining servers in his Wenatchee home last summer. Since then he has made enough profit not only to recover his initial investment but also to pay his monthly mortgage. As a bonus, the heat from the computers keeps his home heated all winter. “It’s just basically free money,” says Benny, pictured here with his homemade mining operation. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
Unfortunately, “participating” in Bitcoin mining isn’t the same thing as actually making money from it. The new ASIC chips on the market today are specifically designed for mining Bitcoin. They’re really good at Bitcoin mining, and every time someone adds a new ASIC-powered computer to the Bitcoin network, it makes Bitcoin mining that much more difficult.
In 2014 prices started at $770 and fell to $314 for the year. In February 2014 the Mt. Gox exchange, the largest bitcoin exchange at the time, said that 850,000 bitcoins had been stolen from its customers, amounting to almost $500 million. Bitcoin's price fell by almost half, from $867 to $439 (a 49% drop). Prices remained low until late 2016.