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.
The influx in malware led some online companies to implement protective measures for their users. Google announced in a blog post in April that it would no longer allow browser extensions in its Web Store that mine cryptocurrencies. The online store allows for users to pick extensions and apps that personalize their Chrome web browser, but the company noted that the “capabilities have attracted malicious software developers who attempt to abuse the platform at the expense of users.”
Bitcoin prices saw tremendous activity during 2017, rising several thousand percent over the year. The market has seen some volatility, although many of the dips seen in the cryptocurrency have thus far proven to be good buying opportunities. This trend may or may not continue, but given the outlook for Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies, the trend could potentially remain higher for a long time to come.
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
Bitcoin Mining is intentionally designed to be resource-intensive and difficult so that the number of blocks found each day by miners remains steady over time, producing a controlled finite monetary supply. Individual blocks must contain a proof-of-work to be considered valid. This proof-of-work (PoW) is verified by other Bitcoin nodes each time they receive a block. Bitcoin uses a PoW function to protect against double-spending, which also makes Bitcoin's ledger immutable.
Mining is a record-keeping service done through the use of computer processing power.[e] Miners keep the blockchain consistent, complete, and unalterable by repeatedly grouping newly broadcast transactions into a block, which is then broadcast to the network and verified by recipient nodes. Each block contains a SHA-256 cryptographic hash of the previous block, thus linking it to the previous block and giving the blockchain its name.:ch. 7
The difficulty is the measure of how difficult it is to find a new block compared to the easiest it can ever be. The rate is recalculated every 2,016 blocks to a value such that the previous 2,016 blocks would have been generated in exactly one fortnight (two weeks) had everyone been mining at this difficulty. This is expected yield, on average, one block every ten minutes.
Each ASIC has more than 100 cores, all of which operate independently to run Bitcoin’s SHA-256 hashing algorithm. A control board on the top of the machine coordinates the work, downloading the block header to be hashed and distributing the problem to all the hashing engines, which then report back with solutions and the random numbers they used to get them.
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.
Bloomberg reported that the largest 17 crypto merchant-processing services handled $69 million in June 2018, down from $411 million in September 2017. Bitcoin is "not actually usable" for retail transactions because of high costs and the inability to process chargebacks, according to Nicholas Weaver, a researcher quoted by Bloomberg. High price volatility and transaction fees make paying for small retail purchases with bitcoin impractical, according to economist Kim Grauer. However, bitcoin continues to be used for large-item purchases on sites such as Overstock.com, and for cross-border payments to freelancers and other vendors.
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Bitcoin has been criticized for the amount of electricity consumed by mining. As of 2015, The Economist estimated that even if all miners used modern facilities, the combined electricity consumption would be 166.7 megawatts (1.46 terawatt-hours per year). At the end of 2017, the global bitcoin mining activity was estimated to consume between one and four gigawatts of electricity. Politico noted that the even high-end estimates of bitcoin's total consumption levels amount to only about 6% of the total power consumed by the global banking sector, and even if bitcoin's consumption levels increased 100 fold from today's levels, bitcoin's consumption would still only amount to about 2% of global power consumption.
Bitcoin is a digital currency created in 2009. It follows the ideas set out in a white paper by the mysterious Satoshi Nakamoto, whose true identity has yet to be verified. Bitcoin offers the promise of lower transaction fees than traditional online payment mechanisms and is operated by a decentralized authority, unlike government-issued currencies.
Carlson has become the face of the Mid-Columbia Basin crypto boom. Articulate, infectiously optimistic, with graying hair and a trim beard, the Microsoft software developer-turned-serial entrepreneur has built a series of mines, made (and lost) several bitcoin fortunes and endured countless setbacks to become one of the region’s largest players. Other local miners credit Carlson for launching the basin’s boom, back in 2012, when he showed up in a battered Honda in the middle of a snowstorm and set up his servers in an old furniture store. Carlson wouldn’t go that far, but the 47-year-old was one of the first people to understand, back when bitcoin was still mainly something video gamers mined in their basements, that you might make serious money mining bitcoin at scale—but only if you could find a place with cheap electricity.
With bitcoin, on the other hand, the supply is tightly controlled by the underlying algorithm. A small number of new bitcoins trickle out every hour, and will continue to do so at a diminishing rate until a maximum of 21 million has been reached. This makes bitcoin more attractive as an asset – in theory, if demand grows and the supply remains the same, the value will increase.
The incremental complexity and technological know-how needed for this method are both downsides to the paper wallet approach. Cold storage solutions and hardware wallets are less nimble than other options, too; if the price of bitcoin were crashing, for example, you might find yourself slower to the draw than if you merely kept your BTC on a site like Coinbase.
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.