Zhang walks up to a door between two shelves full of mining rigs, and we step through. “This is the hot side,” he tells me. We’re standing in an empty, brightly lit space that serves as the heat dump for the facility. The exhaust fans from all the mining machines on the other side are poking out through little holes in a metal wall, blasting hot air into the space, where it gets purged to the outside by another wall full of giant metal fans.
Let’s start with what it’s not doing. Your computer is not blasting through the cavernous depths of the internet in search of digital ore that can be fashioned into bitcoin bullion. There is no ore, and bitcoin mining doesn’t involve extracting or smelting anything. It’s called mining only because the people who do it are the ones who get new bitcoins, and because bitcoin is a finite resource liberated in small amounts over time, like gold, or anything else that is mined. (The size of each batch of coins drops by half roughly every four years, and around 2140, it will be cut to zero, capping the total number of bitcoins in circulation at 21 million.) But the analogy ends there.
Bitcoin Mining is intentionally designed to be resource-intensive and difficult so that the number of blocks found each day by miners remains steady over time, producing a controlled finite monetary supply. Individual blocks must contain a proof-of-work to be considered valid. This proof-of-work (PoW) is verified by other Bitcoin nodes each time they receive a block. Bitcoin uses a PoW function to protect against double-spending, which also makes Bitcoin's ledger immutable.
In 2013, Mark Gimein estimated electricity consumption to be about 40.9 megawatts (982 megawatt-hours a day). In 2014, Hass McCook estimated 80.7 megawatts (80,666 kW). As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166.7 megawatts (1.46 terawatt-hours per year).
News drives attention, and attention drives understanding. While many people have flocked to cryptocurrencies purely in search of financial gain, there are a ton of people that are simply curious. Some peoples are sticking around and trying to understand what cryptos are all about. While more users increases Bitcoin’s network effect, more people forming in-depth understandings of cryptos also strengthen the active Bitcoin community.
But Bolz, a longtime critic of cryptocurrency, says local concerns go beyond economics: Many residents he hears from aren’t keen to see so much public power sold to an industry whose chief product is, in their minds, of value only to speculators and criminals. “I mean, this is a conservative community, and they’re like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with dollars?’” says Bolz. “If you just went out and did a poll of Chelan County, and asked people, ‘Do you want us to be involved in the bitcoin industry, they would say not only ‘No,’ but ‘Hell no.’”
Bitcoin is in the very early stages of acceptance, and although it is already accepted as a means of payment by numerous merchants, it has yet to become more widely accepted and “mainstream.” This could change, however, as more and more users are attracted to cryptocurrencies for the various potential benefits they may provide. In fact, investors have been flocking to the currency in significant numbers, and some even feel that eventually Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies could replace other traditional payment methods.
Bitcoin mining is so called because it resembles the mining of other commodities: it requires exertion and it slowly makes new units available to anybody who wishes to take part. An important difference is that the supply does not depend on the amount of mining. In general changing total miner hashpower does not change how many bitcoins are created over the long term.
The other reason is safety. Looking at 2009 alone, 32,489 blocks were mined; at the then-reward rate of 50 BTC per block, the total payout in 2009 was 1,624,500 BTC, which at today’s prices is over $900 million. One may conclude that only Satoshi and perhaps a few other people were mining through 2009, and that they possess a majority of that $900 million worth of BTC. Someone in possession of that much BTC could become a target of criminals, especially since bitcoins are less like stocks and more like cash, where the private keys needed to authorize spending could be printed out and literally kept under a mattress. While it's likely the inventor of Bitcoin would take precautions to make any extortion-induced transfers traceable, remaining anonymous is a good way for Satoshi to limit exposure.
Miners found other advantages. The cool winters and dry air helped reduce the need for costly air conditioning to prevent their churning servers from overheating. As a bonus, the region was already equipped with some of the nation’s fastest high-speed internet, thanks to the massive fiber backbone the data centers had installed. All in all, recalls Miehe, the basin was bitcoin’s “killer app.”
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.
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.
Then two things happen. New transactions are added to the Bitcoin blockchain ledger, and the winning miner is rewarded with newly minted bitcoins. The miner also collects small fees that users voluntarily tack onto their transactions as a way of pushing them to the head of the line. It’s ultimately an exchange of electricity for coins, mediated by a whole lot of computing power. The probability of an individual miner winning the lottery depends entirely on the speed at which that miner can generate new hashes relative to the speed of all other miners combined. In this way, the lottery is more like a raffle, where the more tickets you buy in comparison to everyone else makes it more likely that your name will be pulled out of the hat.
Just because miners want power doesn’t mean they get it. Some inquiries are withdrawn. And all three county public utilities have considerable discretion when it comes to granting power requests. But by law, they must consider any legitimate request for power, which has meant doing costly studies and holding hearings—sparking a prolonged, public debate over this new industry’s impact on the basin’s power economy. There are concerns about the huge costs of new substations, transmission wires and other infrastructure necessary to accommodate these massive loads. In Douglas County, where the bulk of the new mining projects are going in, a brand new 84-megawatt substation that should have been adequate for the next 30 to 50 years of normal population growth was fully subscribed in less than a year.
Indeed, for a time, everything seemed to come together for the miners. By mid-2013, Carlson’s first mine, though only 250 kilowatts in size, was mining hundreds of bitcoins a day—enough for him to pay all his power bills and other expenses while “stacking” the rest as a speculative asset that had started to appreciate. By then, bitcoin was shedding its reputation as the currency of drug dealers and data-breach blackmailers. A few legitimate companies, like Microsoft, and even some banks were accepting it. Competing cryptocurrencies were proliferating, and trading sites were emerging. Bitcoin was the hot new thing, and its price surged past $1,100 before settling in the mid-hundreds.
Bitcoin prices were negatively affected by several hacks or thefts from cryptocurrency exchanges, including thefts from Coincheck in January 2018, Coinrail and Bithumb in June, and Bancor in July. For the first six months of 2018, $761 million worth of cryptocurrencies was reported stolen from exchanges. Bitcoin's price was affected even though other cryptocurrencies were stolen at Coinrail and Bancor, as investors worried about the security of cryptocurrency exchanges.