This bizarre process might not seem like it would need that much electricity—and in the early years, it didn’t. When he first started in 2012, Carlson was mining bitcoin on his gaming computer, and even when he built his first real dedicated mining rig, that machine used maybe 1,200 watts—about as much as a hairdryer or a microwave oven. Even with Seattle’s electricity prices, Carlson was spending around $2 per bitcoin, which was then selling for around $12. In fact, Carlson was making such a nice profit that he began to dream about running a bunch of servers and making some serious money. He wasn’t alone. Across the expanding bitcoin universe, lots of miners were thinking about scaling up, turning their basements and spare bedrooms into jury-rigged data centers. But most of these people were thinking small, like maybe 10 kilowatts, about what four normal households might use. Carlson’s idea was to leapfrog the basement phase and go right to a commercial-scale bitcoin mine that was huge: 1,000 kilowatts. “I started to have this dream, that I was posting on online forums, ‘I think I could build the first megawatt-scale mine.’”

Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto[9] and released as open-source software in 2009.[10] Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies,[11] products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.[12]

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