Several news outlets have asserted that the popularity of bitcoins hinges on the ability to use them to purchase illegal goods. Nobel-prize winning economist Joseph Stiglitz says that bitcoin's anonymity encourages money laundering and other crimes, "If you open up a hole like bitcoin, then all the nefarious activity will go through that hole, and no government can allow that." He's also said that if "you regulate it so you couldn’t engage in money laundering and all these other [crimes], there will be no demand for Bitcoin. By regulating the abuses, you are going to regulate it out of existence. It exists because of the abuses."
Steve Wright and John Stoll: The Dam Masters Wright, left, and Stoll, pictured at the Rocky Reach Dam, are general manager and head of customer utilities with the Chelan County Public Utility District, respectively. In the past year, miners have made inquiries or requests for power totaling two-thirds as much as the basin’s three county utilities now generate. | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
The rise in the value of bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies in recent years has made cryptocurrency mining a lucrative activity. Cryptocurrency mining uses computing power to compete against other computers to solve complex math problems, with that effort rewarded with bits of cryptocurrencies. That computing power helps create a distributed, secure and transparent network ledger — commonly known as a blockchain — on which applications such as bitcoin can be built.
With the Antminers needing to stay below 38 °C, Mongolia is not the ideal location for a mining facility. It had been above 40 °C for several days when I visited in July. And in the winter, it can fall to –20 °C, cold enough for Bitmain to add insulation to the facilities. Dust is a problem as well, which is why the interior of every warehouse I walk through is veiled in a fine fabric filter.
In parts of the basin, utility crews now actively hunt unpermitted miners, in a manner not unlike the way police look for indoor cannabis farms. The biggest giveaway, Stoll says, is a sustained jump in power use. But crews have learned to look, and listen, for other telltales, such as “fans that are exhausting out of the garage or a bedroom.” In any given week, the utility flushes out two to five suspected miners, Stoll says. Some come clean. They pay for permits and the often-substantial wiring upgrades, or they quit. But others quietly move their servers to another residential location and plug back in. “It’s a bit of a cat-and-mouse game,” Stoll admits.
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.”
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.
That opportunity may not last. Huffman, who is also a former utility executive, argues that ever-cheaper power rates in other states, like California, could undercut the basin’s appeal to blockchain miners, who may begin to look for other places to mine. For that reason, Huffman argues that the basin should be actively recruiting more miners, even if it means importing power. “I think there’s a window here,” Huffman says, “and it’s unknown how long that window will be open.” Yet he, too, knows that any such talk will lead to criticism that the basin is yoking its future to a volatile sector that, for many, remains a chimera. “Some folks think that bitcoin is just a scam,” Huffman concedes. “And in the conversation, you usually don’t get past that.”
Bitcoin mining operations take a lot of effort and power, and the sheer amount of competition makes it difficult for newcomers to enter the race and profit. A new miner would not only need to have adequate computing power and the knowledge to use it to outcompete the competition, but would also need the extensive amount of capital necessary to fund the operations.
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.