After some months later, after the network started, it was discovered that high end graphics cards were much more efficient at Bitcoin mining. The Graphical Processing Unit (GPU) handles complex 3D imaging algorithms, therefore, CPU Bitcoin mining gave way to the GPU. The massively parallel nature of some GPUs allowed for a 50x to 100x increase in Bitcoin mining power while using far less power per unit of work. But this still wasn’t the most power-efficient option, as both CPUs and GPUs were very efficient at completing many tasks simultaneously, and consumed significant power to do so, whereas Bitcoin in essence just needed a processor that performed its cryptographic hash function ultra-efficiently.
This bizarre process might not seem like it would need that much electricity—and in the early years, it didn’t. When he first started in 2012, Carlson was mining bitcoin on his gaming computer, and even when he built his first real dedicated mining rig, that machine used maybe 1,200 watts—about as much as a hairdryer or a microwave oven. Even with Seattle’s electricity prices, Carlson was spending around $2 per bitcoin, which was then selling for around $12. In fact, Carlson was making such a nice profit that he began to dream about running a bunch of servers and making some serious money. He wasn’t alone. Across the expanding bitcoin universe, lots of miners were thinking about scaling up, turning their basements and spare bedrooms into jury-rigged data centers. But most of these people were thinking small, like maybe 10 kilowatts, about what four normal households might use. Carlson’s idea was to leapfrog the basement phase and go right to a commercial-scale bitcoin mine that was huge: 1,000 kilowatts. “I started to have this dream, that I was posting on online forums, ‘I think I could build the first megawatt-scale mine.’”
These days, Miehe says, a serious miner wouldn’t even look at a site like that. As bitcoin’s soaring price has drawn in thousands of new players worldwide, the strange math at the heart of this cryptocurrency has grown steadily more complicated. Generating a single bitcoin takes a lot more servers than it used to—and a lot more power. Today, a half-megawatt mine, Miehe says, “is nothing.” The commercial miners now pouring into the valley are building sites with tens of thousands of servers and electrical loads of as much as 30 megawatts, or enough to power a neighborhood of 13,000 homes. And in the arms race that cryptocurrency mining has become, even these operations will soon be considered small-scale. Miehe knows of substantially larger mining projects in the basin backed by out-of-state investors from Wall Street, Europe and Asia whose prospecting strategy, as he puts it, amounts to “running around with a checkbook just trying to get in there and establish scale.”
One of Bitcoin’s most appealing features is its ruthless verification process, which greatly minimizes the risk of fraud. Since Bitcoin is decentralized, volunteers—referred to as “miners”—constantly verify and update the blockchain. Once a specific amount of transactions are verified, another block is added to the blockchain and business continues per usual.
Nor was it simply the deep pockets. At these prices, even smaller operators have been able to make real money running a few machines in home-based, under-the-radar mines. Take the 20-something Wenatchee man we’ll call “Benny”—he didn’t want to be identified—who last July bought three mining servers, set them up in his house (one in the master bedroom and two in the living room)—and began mining Ethereum, bitcoin’s closest cryptocurrency rival. As Ethereum climbed from $165 in July to nearly $1,200 in January, Benny had not only repaid his $7,000 investment but was making enough to pay his mortgage. As a side benefit, this winter, Benny’s power bill went down: The waste heat from the three churning servers kept the house at a toasty 78 degrees. “We actually have to open the windows,” he told me in January. His servers, meanwhile, pretty much run themselves—although, when he’s at work, clerking at a grocery, he monitors the machines, and the Ethereum price, on his phone. “It’s just basically free money,” Benny says. “All I have to do is wake up in the morning and make sure nothing crashed during the night.”
Bitcoin may react differently to inflation/deflation: Bitcoin differs significantly from fiat currencies, due to the fact that there is a limited number of bitcoins to be mined. Paper money, on the other hand, can be created at will out of thin air by central banks. Due to its limited supply, Bitcoin may potentially hold its value better than paper money, which can technically have an unlimited supply.
This spring, Bitmain caused a minor uproar when a developer found a “backdoor,” called Antbleed, in the firmware of Bitmain’s S9 Antminers. The backdoor could have been used by the company to track the location of its machines and shut them down remotely. While no computer purchaser would find such a vulnerability acceptable, it’s particularly troubling for Bitcoin.
Satoshi's anonymity often raises unjustified concerns because of a misunderstanding of Bitcoin's open-source nature. Everyone has access to all of the source code all of the time and any developer can review or modify the software code. As such, the identity of Bitcoin's inventor is probably as relevant today as the identity of the person who invented paper.
To lower the costs, bitcoin miners have set up in places like Iceland where geothermal energy is cheap and cooling Arctic air is free. Bitcoin miners are known to use hydroelectric power in Tibet, Quebec, Washington (state), and Austria to reduce electricity costs. Miners are attracted to suppliers such as Hydro Quebec that have energy surpluses. According to a University of Cambridge study, much of bitcoin mining is done in China, where electricity is subsidized by the government.
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.”
Bitmain acquired this mining facility in Inner Mongolia a couple years ago and has turned it into one of the most powerful money factories on the Bitcoin network. It quite literally metabolizes electricity into money. By my own calculations, the hardware on the grounds—some 21,000 computers—accounted for about 4 percent of all the computing power in the Bitcoin network when I visited.
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.
Malachi Salcido: The Local Talent Salcido, a Wenatchee native and building contractor, studied other miners before launching his own bitcoin operation in 2014. He’s now one of the biggest miners in the basin, and has worked hard to convince the community that bitcoin and the blockchain could transform the region into a technology hub. “What you can actually do with the technology, we’re only beginning to discover,” says Salcido, pictured above in one of his mines. The basin is “building a platform that the entire world is going to use.” | Patrick Cavan Brown for Politico Magazine
Transactions are verified by network nodes through cryptography and recorded in a public distributed ledger called a blockchain. Bitcoin was invented by an unknown person or group of people using the name Satoshi Nakamoto and released as open-source software in 2009. Bitcoins are created as a reward for a process known as mining. They can be exchanged for other currencies, products, and services. Research produced by the University of Cambridge estimates that in 2017, there were 2.9 to 5.8 million unique users using a cryptocurrency wallet, most of them using bitcoin.