“It’s a real testament to Bitmain that they’ve been able to fend off the competition they have fended off. But still, you haven’t seen an Intel and a Nvidia go full hog into this sector, and it would be interesting to see what would happen if they did,” says Garrick Hileman, an economic historian at the London School of Economics who compiled a miner survey with the University of Cambridge.
The place was relatively easy to find. Less than three hours east of Seattle, on the other side of the Cascade Mountains, you could buy electricity for around 2.5 cents per kilowatt, which was a quarter of Seattle’s rate and around a fifth of the national average. Carlson’s dream began to fall into place. He found an engineer in Poland who had just developed a much faster, more energy-efficient server, and whom he persuaded to back Carlson’s new venture, then called Mega-BigPower. In late 2012, Carlson found some empty retail space in the city of Wenatchee, just a few blocks from the Columbia River, and began to experiment with configurations of servers and cooling systems until he found something he could scale up into the biggest bitcoin mine in the world. The boom here had officially begun.
That constraint is what makes the problem more or less difficult. More leading zeroes means fewer possible solutions, and more time required to solve the problem. Every 2,016 blocks (roughly two weeks), that difficulty is reset. If it took miners less than 10 minutes on average to solve those 2,016 blocks, then the difficulty is automatically increased. If it took longer, then the difficulty is decreased.
To add a new block to the chain, a miner has to finish what’s called a cryptographic proof-of-work problem. Such problems are impossible to solve without applying a ton of brute computing force, so if you have a solution in hand, it’s proof that you’ve done a certain quantity of computational work. The computational problem is different for every block in the chain, and it involves a particular kind of algorithm called a hash function.
Skipping over the technical details, finding a block most closely resembles a type of network lottery. For each attempt to try and find a new block, which is basically a random guess for a lucky number, a miner has to spend a tiny amount of energy. Most of the attempts fail and a miner will have wasted that energy. Only once about every ten minutes will a miner somewhere succeed and thus add a new block to the blockchain.
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.
In the beginning, mining with a CPU was the only way to mine bitcoins and was done using the original Satoshi client. In the quest to further secure the network and earn more bitcoins, miners innovated on many fronts and for years now, CPU mining has been relatively futile. You might mine for decades using your laptop without earning a single coin.
In exchange for securing the network, and as the “lottery price” that serves as an incentive for burning this energy, each new block includes a special transaction. It’s this transaction that awards the miner with new bitcoins, which is how bitcoins first come into circulation. At Bitcoin’s launch, each new block awarded the miner with 50 bitcoins, and this amount halves every four years: Currently each block includes 12.5 new bitcoins. Additionally, miners get to keep any mining fees that were attached to the transactions they included in their blocks.
Meanwhile, the miners in the basin have embarked on some image polishing. Carlson and Salcido, in particular, have worked hard to placate utility officialdom. Miners have agreed to pay heavy hook-up fees and to finance some of the needed infrastructure upgrades. They’ve also labored to build a case for the sector’s broader economic benefits—like sales tax revenues. They say mining could help offset some of the hundreds of jobs lost when the region’s other big power user—the huge Alcoa aluminum smelter just south of Wenatchee—was idled a few years ago.
Nakamoto is estimated to have mined one million bitcoins before disappearing in 2010, when he handed the network alert key and control of the code repository over to Gavin Andresen. Andresen later became lead developer at the Bitcoin Foundation. Andresen then sought to decentralize control. This left opportunity for controversy to develop over the future development path of bitcoin.