A specific problem that an internet payment system must solve is double-spending, whereby a user pays the same coin to two or more different recipients. An example of such a problem would be if Eve sent a bitcoin to Alice and later sent the same bitcoin to Bob. The bitcoin network guards against double-spending by recording all bitcoin transfers in a ledger (the blockchain) that is visible to all users, and ensuring for all transferred bitcoins that they haven't been previously spent.:4
The Mid-Columbia Basin isn’t the only location where the virtual realm of cryptocurrency is colliding with the real world of megawatts and real estate. In places like China, Venezuela and Iceland, cheap land and even cheaper electricity have resulted in bustling mining hubs. But the basin, by dint of its early start, has emerged as one of the biggest boomtowns. By the end of 2018, according to some estimates, miners here could account for anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of all bitcoin mining in the world, and impressive shares of other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin. And as with any boomtown, that success has created tensions. There have been disputes between miners and locals, bankruptcies and bribery attempts, lawsuits, even a kind of intensifying guerrilla warfare between local utility crews and a shadowy army of bootleg miners who set up their servers in basements and garages and max out the local electrical grids.
For local cryptocurrency enthusiasts, these slings and arrows are all very much worth enduring. They believe not only that cryptocurrency will make them personally very wealthy, but also that this formerly out-of-the-way region has a real shot at becoming a center—and maybe the center—of a coming technology revolution, with the well-paid jobs and tech-fueled prosperity that usually flow only to gilded “knowledge” hubs like Seattle and San Francisco. Malachi Salcido, a Wenatchee building contractor who jumped into bitcoin in 2014 and is now one of the basin’s biggest players, puts it in sweeping terms. The basin, he tells me, is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.”
You can buy bitcoins at online exchanges similar to a paypal account. Companies like Coinbase allow you to buy bitcoin with a credit card along with wire transfers, checks and ACH. You can also use professional exchanges like Coinbase Pro that allow for institutional investors and experienced traders to trade in high volumes in a variety of cryptocurrencies with minimal fees.
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.
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.
Bitcoin is one of the first digital currencies to use peer-to-peer technology to facilitate instant payments. The independent individuals and companies who own the governing computing power and participate in the Bitcoin network, also known as "miners," are motivated by rewards (the release of new bitcoin) and transaction fees paid in bitcoin. These miners can be thought of as the decentralized authority enforcing the credibility of the Bitcoin network. New bitcoin is being released to the miners at a fixed, but periodically declining rate, such that the total supply of bitcoins approaches 21 million. One bitcoin is divisible to eight decimal places (100 millionth of one bitcoin), and this smallest unit is referred to as a Satoshi. If necessary, and if the participating miners accept the change, Bitcoin could eventually be made divisible to even more decimal places.
Miehe still runs his original mine, a half-megawatt operation not far from the carwash. But his main job these days is managing hosting sites for other miners and connecting outsiders with insiders—and he’s OK with that. He sold off some of his bitcoin stack, just after Christmas. He’s still bullish on crypto, and on the basin’s long-term prospects. But he no longer has any appetite for the race for scale. Gone are the glory days when commercial miners could self-finance with their own stacks. Today, you need outside financing—debt—which, for Miehe, who now has two young children, would mean an unacceptable level of stress. “I’ve already done it,” he says. “My entire data center was built with bitcoin, from nothing. I’ve already won enough for what I was looking for out of mining.” He pauses. “The risk and reward is getting pretty great,” he says. “And I’m not sure I want to be on the front line of that battle.”
If fewer people begin to accept Bitcoin as a currency, these digital units may lose value and could become worthless. There is already plenty of competition, and though Bitcoin has a huge lead over the other 100-odd digital currencies that have sprung up, thanks to its brand recognition and venture capital money, a technological break-through in the form of a better virtual coin is always a threat.
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.
All mining ASICs, Bitmain’s included, are performing essentially the same computation—the SHA-256 hashing algorithm—even if they go about it a bit differently. The standard algorithm takes 64 steps to complete, but in Bitcoin it is run twice for each block header, meaning a full round requires 128 steps that are heavy on integer addition. “That’s what dominates the whole design,” says Timo Hanke, the chief cryptographer at String Labs, a cryptography-focused incubator in Palo Alto, Calif. “So, if somebody was to optimize it, they have to optimize the adders. That’s where most of the work is.”
Computing power is often bundled together or "pooled" to reduce variance in miner income. Individual mining rigs often have to wait for long periods to confirm a block of transactions and receive payment. In a pool, all participating miners get paid every time a participating server solves a block. This payment depends on the amount of work an individual miner contributed to help find that block.
Home Sweet Repair Shop: One building on the grounds houses a lunchroom, operational center, repair shop, and dormitory. A few dozen employees run the entire facility. Their jobs include scanning the racks for malfunctioning machines, cleaning the cooling fans, fixing broken rigs, and installing upgraded machines. Many of the employees are recent engineering graduates from the local university.
If the private key is lost, the bitcoin network will not recognize any other evidence of ownership; the coins are then unusable, and effectively lost. For example, in 2013 one user claimed to have lost 7,500 bitcoins, worth $7.5 million at the time, when he accidentally discarded a hard drive containing his private key. A backup of his key(s) would have prevented this.