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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.
Although BitFury claims to be producing chips whose performance is nearly identical to those used in the S9, the company has packaged them into a very different product. Called the BlockBox, it’s a complete bitcoin-mining data center that BitFury ships to customers in a storage container. Beijing’s Canaan Creative is still selling mining rigs to the public, but it offers only one product, the AvalonMiner 741, and it’s only half as powerful and slightly less efficient than the S9.
On paper, the Mid-Columbia Basin really did look like El Dorado for Carlson and the other miners who began to trickle in during the first years of the boom. The region’s five huge hydroelectric dams, all owned by public utility districts, generate nearly six times as much power as the region’s residents and businesses can use. Most of the surplus is exported, at high prices, to markets like Seattle or Los Angeles, which allows the utilities to sell power locally at well below its cost of production. Power is so cheap here that people heat their homes with electricity, despite bitterly cold winters, and farmers have been able to irrigate the semi-arid region into one of the world’s most productive agricultural areas. (The local newspaper proudly claims to be published in “the Apple Capital of the World and the Buckle on the Power Belt of the Great Northwest.”) And, importantly, it had already attracted several power-hungry industries, notably aluminum smelting and, starting in the mid-2000s, data centers for tech giants like Microsoft and Intuit.
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.
Even in the recent price crash, the miners have maintained their upbeat attitude, in part because they’ve died this death a few times before. In February, a day after bitcoin’s price dipped below $6,000, I checked in with Carlson to see how he was dealing with the huge sell-off. In a series of long texts, he expressed only optimism. The market correction, he argued, had been inevitable, given the rapid price increase. He noted that mining costs in the basin remain so low—still just a little above $2,000 per coin—that prices have a way to fall before bitcoin stops being worth mining there. Carlson is, he told me, “100 percent confident” the price will surpass the $20,000 level we saw before Christmas. “The question, as always, is how long will it take.”
Competing ASIC maker BitFury has also started seeking profit from nonmining industries. “While we began as just a mining company back in 2011, our company has significantly expanded its reach since then,” says CEO Vavilov. Among other things, BitFury is now providing its immersion cooling technology to high-performance data centers that are not involved in Bitcoin.
Anyone who can run the mining program on the specially designed hardware can participate in mining. Over the years, many computer hardware manufacturers have designed specialized Bitcoin mining hardware that can process transactions and build blocks much more quickly and efficiently than regular computers, since the faster the hardware can guess at random, the higher its chances of solving the puzzle, therefore mining a block.
The first post was made on 31 August and suggested that the funds may be connected to the now-defunct dark web market Silk Road which handled the trade of billions of dollars worth of contraband such as recreational and prescription drugs, illegal weapons and pornography, malware, hacking services, guides to various types of criminal activity, and other black market goods and services.
For all that potential, however, the basin’s nascent mining community was beset by the sort of troubles that you would have found in any other boomtown. Mining technology was still so new that the early operations were constantly crashing. There was a growing, often bitter competition for mining sites that had adequate power, and whose landlords didn’t flip out when the walls got “Swiss-cheesed” with ventilation holes. There was the constant fear of electrical overloads, as coin-crazed miners pushed power systems to the limit—as, for example, when one miner nearly torched an old laundromat in downtown Wenatchee.
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.
But here, Carlson and his fellow would-be crypto tycoons confronted the bizarre, engineered obstinacy of bitcoin, which is designed to make life harder for miners as time goes by. For one, the currency’s mysterious creator (or creators), known as “Satoshi Nakamoto,” programmed the network to periodically—every 210,000 blocks, or once every four years or so—halve the number of bitcoins rewarded for each mined block. The first drop, from 50 coins to 25, came on November 28, 2012, which the faithful call “Halving Day.” (It has since halved again, to 12.5, and is expected to drop to 6.25 in June 2020.)
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The whole process is pretty simple and organized: Bitcoin holders are able to transfer bitcoins via a peer-to-peer network. These transfers are tracked on the “blockchain,” commonly referred to as a giant ledger. This ledger records every bitcoin transaction ever made. Each “block” in the blockchain is built up of a data structure based on encrypted Merkle Trees. This is particularly useful for detecting fraud or corrupted files. If a single file in a chain is corrupt or fraudulent, the blockchain prevents it from damaging the rest of the ledger.
As soon as a miner finds a solution and a majority of other miners confirm it, this winning block is accepted by the network as the “official” block for those particular transactions. The official block is then added to previous blocks, creating an ever-lengthening chain of blocks, called the “blockchain,” that serves as a master ledger for all bitcoin transactions. (Most cryptocurrencies have their own blockchain.) And, importantly, the winning miner is rewarded with brand-new bitcoins (when Carlson got started, in mid-2012, the reward was 50 bitcoins) and all the processing fees. The network then moves on to the next batch of payments and the process repeats—and, in theory, will keep repeating, once every 10 minutes or so, until miners mine all 21 million of the bitcoins programmed into the system.
Ultimately, Bitcoin mining is becoming an arms race. In the early days, anyone with a decent PC could generate Bitcoins through Bitcoin mining. Today, you need to collaborate with other Bitcoin miners in pools, strategically choose the location of your Bitcoin mining operation, and purchase ASIC-powered computers that are specially designed to handle Bitcoin mining.
But not everyone is going along for the ride. Back in East Wenatchee, Miehe is giving me an impromptu tour of the epicenter of the basin’s boom. We drive out to the industrial park by the regional airport, where the Douglas County Port Authority has created a kind of mining zone. We roll past Carlson’s construction site, which is swarming with equipment and men. Not far away, we can see a cluster of maybe two dozen cargo containers that Salcido has converted into mines, with transformers and cooling systems. Across the highway, near the new, already-tapped out substation, Salcido has another crew working a much larger mine. “A year ago, none of this was here,” Miehe says. “This road wasn’t here.”
The code that makes bitcoin mining possible is completely open-source, and developed by volunteers. But the force that really makes the entire machine go is pure capitalistic competition. Every miner right now is racing to solve the same block simultaneously, but only the winner will get the prize. In a sense, everybody else was just burning electricity. Yet their presence in the network is critical.
Gradually, people moved to GPU mining. A GPU (graphics processing unit) is a special component added to computers to carry out more complex calculations. GPUs were originally intended to allow gamers to run computer games with intense graphics requirements. Because of their architecture, they became popular in the field of cryptography, and around 2011, people also started using them to mine bitcoins. For reference, the mining power of one GPU equals that of around 30 CPUs.
Bitcoins may not be ideal for money laundering, because all transactions are public. Authorities, including the European Banking Authority the FBI, and the Financial Action Task Force of the G7 have expressed concerns that bitcoin may be used for money laundering. In early 2014, an operator of a U.S. bitcoin exchange, Charlie Shrem, was arrested for money laundering. Subsequently, he was sentenced to two years in prison for "aiding and abetting an unlicensed money transmitting business". Alexander Vinnik, an alleged owner of BTC-e was arrested in Greece July 25 of 2017 on $4 bln money laundering charges for flouting anti-money laundering (AML) laws of the US. A report by UK's Treasury and Home Office named "UK national risk assessment of money laundering and terrorist financing" (2015 October) found that, of the twelve methods examined in the report, bitcoin carries the lowest risk of being used for money laundering, with the most common money laundering method being the banks.
In the earliest days of Bitcoin, mining was done with CPUs from normal desktop computers. Graphics cards, or graphics processing units (GPUs), are more effective at mining than CPUs and as Bitcoin gained popularity, GPUs became dominant. Eventually, hardware known as an ASIC, which stands for Application-Specific Integrated Circuit, was designed specifically for mining bitcoin. The first ones were released in 2013 and have been improved upon since, with more efficient designs coming to market. Mining is competitive and today can only be done profitably with the latest ASICs. When using CPUs, GPUs, or even the older ASICs, the cost of energy consumption is greater than the revenue generated.
A few years ago, CPU and GPU mining became completely obsolete when FPGAs came around. An FPGA is a Field Programmable Gate Array, which can produce computational power similar to most GPUs, while being far more energy‐efficient than graphics cards. Due to its mining efficiency, and ability to consume relatively lesser energy, many miners shifted to the use of FPGAs.
The successful miner finding the new block is rewarded with newly created bitcoins and transaction fees. As of 9 July 2016, the reward amounted to 12.5 newly created bitcoins per block added to the blockchain. To claim the reward, a special transaction called a coinbase is included with the processed payments.:ch. 8 All bitcoins in existence have been created in such coinbase transactions. The bitcoin protocol specifies that the reward for adding a block will be halved every 210,000 blocks (approximately every four years). Eventually, the reward will decrease to zero, and the limit of 21 million bitcoins[f] will be reached c. 2140; the record keeping will then be rewarded solely by transaction fees.