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.
During the last several years an incredible amount of Bitcoin mining power (hashrate) has come online making it harder for individuals to have enough hashrate to single-handedly solve a block and earn the payout reward. To compensate for this pool mining was introduced. Pooled mining is a mining approach where groups of individual miners contribute to the generation of a block, and then split the block reward according the contributed processing power.
The first wallet program, simply named Bitcoin, and sometimes referred to as the Satoshi client, was released in 2009 by Satoshi Nakamoto as open-source code. In version 0.5 the client moved from the wxWidgets user interface toolkit to Qt, and the whole bundle was referred to as Bitcoin-Qt. After the release of version 0.9, the software bundle was renamed Bitcoin Core to distinguish itself from the underlying network.
As more miners join, the rate of block creation will go up. As the rate of block generation goes up, the difficulty rises to compensate which will push the rate of block creation back down. Any blocks released by malicious miners that do not meet the required difficulty target will simply be rejected by everyone on the network and thus will be worthless.
The use of bitcoin by criminals has attracted the attention of financial regulators, legislative bodies, law enforcement, and the media. The FBI prepared an intelligence assessment, the SEC has issued a pointed warning about investment schemes using virtual currencies, and the U.S. Senate held a hearing on virtual currencies in November 2013. 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."[disputed – discuss] 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."[disputed – discuss]
Various potential attacks on the bitcoin network and its use as a payment system, real or theoretical, have been considered. The bitcoin protocol includes several features that protect it against some of those attacks, such as unauthorized spending, double spending, forging bitcoins, and tampering with the blockchain. Other attacks, such as theft of private keys, require due care by users.
All of which leaves the basin’s utilities caught between a skeptical public and a voracious, energy-intense new sector that, as Bolz puts it, is “looking at us in a predatory sense.” Indeed, every utility executive knows that to reject an application for a load, even one load so large as to require new transmission lines or out-of-area imports, is to invite a major legal fight. “If you can afford 100 megawatts,” Bolz says, “you can afford a lot of attorneys.”
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What bitcoin miners actually do could be better described as competitive bookkeeping. Miners build and maintain a gigantic public ledger containing a record of every bitcoin transaction in history. Every time somebody wants to send bitcoins to somebody else, the transfer has to be validated by miners: They check the ledger to make sure the sender isn’t transferring money she doesn’t have. If the transfer checks out, miners add it to the ledger. Finally, to protect that ledger from getting hacked, miners seal it behind layers and layers of computational work—too much for a would-be fraudster to possibly complete.
Still, even supporters acknowledge that that glorious future is going to use a lot of electricity. It’s true that many of the more alarming claims—for example, that by 2020, bitcoin mining will consume “as much electricity as the entire world does today,” as the environmental website Grist recently suggested—are ridiculous: Even if the current bitcoin load grew a hundredfold, it would still represent less than 2 percent of total global power consumption. (And for comparison, even the high-end estimates of bitcoin’s total current power consumption are still less than 6 percent of the power consumed by the world’s banking sector.) But the fact remains that bitcoin takes an astonishing amount of power. By one estimate, the power now needed to mine a single coin would run the average household for 10 days.
Mining a block is difficult because the SHA-256 hash of a block's header must be lower than or equal to the target in order for the block to be accepted by the network. This problem can be simplified for explanation purposes: The hash of a block must start with a certain number of zeros. The probability of calculating a hash that starts with many zeros is very low, therefore many attempts must be made. In order to generate a new hash each round, a nonce is incremented. See Proof of work for more information.
Correction (Dec. 18, 2013): An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that the long pink string of numbers and letters in the interactive at the top is the target output hash your computer is trying to find by running the mining script. In fact, it is one of the inputs that your computer feeds into the hash function, not the output it is looking for.
A backdoor like Antbleed, if utilized, would give an ASIC manufacturer the power to effectively silence miners who support a version of the Bitcoin protocol that it doesn’t agree with. For instance, Bitmain could have flipped a switch and shut down the entire facility in Ordos if the company found itself in disagreement with the other shareholders.
Price fluctuations, which have been common in Bitcoin since the day it was created eight years ago, saddle miners with risk and uncertainty. And that burden is shared by chip manufacturers, especially ones like Bitmain, which invest the time and money in a full custom design. According to Nishant Sharma, the international marketing manager at Bitmain, when the price of bitcoin was breaking records this spring, sales of S9 rigs doubled. But again, that is not a trend the company can afford to bet on.
Bitcoin mining is the process of updating the ledger of Bitcoin transactions known as the blockchain. Mining is done by running extremely powerful computers (known as ASICs) that race against other miners in an attempt to guess a specific number. The first miner to guess the number gets to update the ledger of transactions and also receives a reward of newly minted Bitcoins (currently the reward is 12.5 Bitcoins).