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.”
As Bitcoin’s adoption and value grew, the justification to produce more powerful, power-efficient and economical devices warranted the significant engineering investments in order to develop the final and current iteration of Bitcoin mining semiconductors. ASICs are super-efficient chips whose hashing power is multiple orders of magnitude greater than the GPUs and FPGAs that came before them. Succinctly, it’s a custom Bitcoin engine capable of securing the network far more effectively than before.
On paper, the Mid-Columbia Basin really did look like El Dorado for Carlson and the other miners who began to trickle in during the first years of the boom. The region’s five huge hydroelectric dams, all owned by public utility districts, generate nearly six times as much power as the region’s residents and businesses can use. Most of the surplus is exported, at high prices, to markets like Seattle or Los Angeles, which allows the utilities to sell power locally at well below its cost of production. Power is so cheap here that people heat their homes with electricity, despite bitterly cold winters, and farmers have been able to irrigate the semi-arid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. (The local newspaper proudly claims to be published in “the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle on the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”) And, importantly, it had already attracted several power-hungry industries, notably aluminum smelting and, starting in the mid-2000s, data centers for tech giants like Microsoft and Intuit.
After some months later, after the network started, it was discovered that high end graphics cards were much more efficient at Bitcoin mining. The Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) handles complex 3D imaging algorithms, therefore, CPU Bitcoin mining gave way to the GPU. The massively parallel nature of some GPUs allowed for a 50x to 100x increase in Bitcoin mining power while using far less power per unit of work. But this still wasn’t the most power-efficient option, as both CPUs and GPUs were very efficient at completing many tasks simultaneously, and consumed significant power to do so, whereas Bitcoin in essence just needed a processor that performed its cryptographic hash function ultra-efficiently.
Meanwhile, investors have been rattled this week by reports bank-owned currency trading utility CLS, along with enterprise software giant IBM, are teaming up to trial the blockchain-based Ledger Connect, an application that offers services from different vendors, with some nine financial institutions, including international heavyweights Barclays and Citigroup.
While heat is definitely an issue for the mining farm in Ordos, the electricity there is dirt cheap, only 4 U.S. cents per kilowatt-hour, with government subsidies. That’s about one-fifth of the average price in the United Kingdom. The only other costs for the facility are the rigs themselves and the salary of the few dozen staff that keeps them operational.
These dynamics have resulted in a race among miners to amass the fastest, most energy-efficient chips. And the demand for faster equipment has spawned a new industry devoted entirely to the computational needs of Bitcoin miners. Until late 2013, generic graphics cards and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were powerful enough to put you in the race. But that same year companies began to sell computer chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which are specifically designed for the task of computing the Bitcoin hashing algorithm. Today, ASICs are the standard technology found in every large-scale facility, including the mining farm in Ordos. When Bitmain first started making ASICs in 2013, the field was thick with competitors—BitFury, a multinational ASIC maker; KnCMiner in Stockholm; Butterfly Labs in the United States; Canaan Creative in Beijing; and about 20 other companies spread around China.
There are many Bitcoin supporters who believe that digital currency is the future. Those who endorse it are of the view that it facilitates a much faster, no-fee payment system for transactions across the globe. Although it is not itself any backed by any government or central bank, bitcoin can be exchanged for traditional currencies; in fact, its exchange rate against the dollar attracts potential investors and traders interested in currency plays. Indeed, one of the primary reasons for the growth of digital currencies like Bitcoin is that they can act as an alternative to national fiat money and traditional commodities like gold.