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.
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.
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Miners found other advantages. The cool winters and dry air helped reduce the need for costly air conditioning to prevent their churning servers from overheating. As a bonus, the region was already equipped with some of the nation’s fastest high-speed internet, thanks to the massive fiber backbone the data centers had installed. All in all, recalls Miehe, the basin was bitcoin’s “killer app.”
With the Bitcoin price so volatile everyone is curious. Bitcoin, the category creator of blockchain technology, is the World Wide Ledger yet extremely complicated and no one definition fully encapsulates it. By analogy it is like being able to send a gold coin via email. It is a consensus network that enables a new payment system and a completely digital money.
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.
These dynamics have resulted in a race among miners to amass the fastest, most energy-efficient chips. And the demand for faster equipment has spawned a new industry devoted entirely to the computational needs of Bitcoin miners. Until late 2013, generic graphics cards and field-programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) were powerful enough to put you in the race. But that same year companies began to sell computer chips, called application-specific integrated circuits (ASICs), which are specifically designed for the task of computing the Bitcoin hashing algorithm. Today, ASICs are the standard technology found in every large-scale facility, including the mining farm in Ordos. When Bitmain first started making ASICs in 2013, the field was thick with competitors—BitFury, a multinational ASIC maker; KnCMiner in Stockholm; Butterfly Labs in the United States; Canaan Creative in Beijing; and about 20 other companies spread around China.
In the blockchain, bitcoins are registered to bitcoin addresses. Creating a bitcoin address requires nothing more than picking a random valid private key and computing the corresponding bitcoin address. This computation can be done in a split second. But the reverse, computing the private key of a given bitcoin address, is mathematically unfeasible. Users can tell others or make public a bitcoin address without compromising its corresponding private key. Moreover, the number of valid private keys is so vast that it is extremely unlikely someone will compute a key-pair that is already in use and has funds. The vast number of valid private keys makes it unfeasible that brute force could be used to compromise a private key. To be able to spend their bitcoins, the owner must know the corresponding private key and digitally sign the transaction. The network verifies the signature using the public key.:ch. 5
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.
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.
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.”
It would seem even early collaborators on the project don’t have verifiable proof of Satoshi’s identity. To reveal conclusively who Satoshi Nakamoto is, a definitive link would need to be made between his/her activity with Bitcoin and his/her identity. That could come in the form of linking the party behind the domain registration of bitcoin.org, email and forum accounts used by Satoshi Nakamoto, or ownership of some portion of the earliest mined bitcoins. Even though the bitcoins Satoshi likely possesses are traceable on the blockchain, it seems he/she has yet to cash them out in a way that reveals his/her identity. If Satoshi were to move his/her bitcoins to an exchange today, this might attract attention, but it seems unlikely that a well-funded and successful exchange would betray a customer's privacy.
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.”
Bitcoin was the first decentralized digital currency; an online peer-to-peer payment system, without the need for third-party intermediaries such as banks. It was first released in 2008 and has since grown to be the largest cryptocurrency when measured by market cap. Bitcoins are not issued like traditional currency, they are digital and “mined” by powerful servers over time. It was designed to have a fixed supply of 21 million coins.
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
Cryptojacking and legitimate mining, however, are sensitive to cryptocurrency prices, which have declined sharply since their highs in late 2017 and early 2018. According to a McAfee September 2018 threats report, cryptojacking instances “remain very active,” but a decline in the value of cryptocurrencies could lead to a plunge in coin mining malware, just as fast as it emerged.
According to the European Central Bank, the decentralization of money offered by bitcoin has its theoretical roots in the Austrian school of economics, especially with Friedrich von Hayek in his book Denationalisation of Money: The Argument Refined, in which he advocates a complete free market in the production, distribution and management of money to end the monopoly of central banks.:22
The counterargument is that the blockchain economy is still in its infancy. The “monetized code” that underlies the blockchain concept can be written to carry any sort of information securely, and to administer virtually any kind of transaction, contractual arrangement or other data-driven relationship between humans and their proliferating machines. In the future, supporters say, banks and other large institutions and even governments will run internal blockchains. Consumer product companies and tech companies will use blockchain to manage the “internet of things.” Within this ecosystem, we’ll see a range of cryptos playing different roles, with bitcoin perhaps serving as an investment, while more nimble cryptos can carry out everyday transactions. And the reality is, whatever its flaws, bitcoin’s success and fame thus far makes the whole crypto phenomenon harder to dislodge with every trading cycle.
More important, Nakamoto built the system to make the blocks themselves more difficult to mine as more computer power flows into the network. That is, as more miners join, or as existing miners buy more servers, or as the servers themselves get faster, the bitcoin network automatically adjusts the solution criteria so that finding those passwords requires proportionately more random guesses, and thus more computing power. These adjustments occur every 10 to 14 days, and are programmed to ensure that bitcoin blocks are mined no faster than one roughly every 10 minutes. The presumed rationale is that by forcing miners to commit more computing power, Nakamoto was making miners more invested in the long-term survival of the network.
Various journalists, economists, and the central bank of Estonia have voiced concerns that bitcoin is a Ponzi scheme. In 2013, Eric Posner, a law professor at the University of Chicago, stated that "a real Ponzi scheme takes fraud; bitcoin, by contrast, seems more like a collective delusion." A 2014 report by the World Bank concluded that bitcoin was not a deliberate Ponzi scheme.:7 The Swiss Federal Council:21 examined the concerns that bitcoin might be a pyramid scheme; it concluded that, "Since in the case of bitcoin the typical promises of profits are lacking, it cannot be assumed that bitcoin is a pyramid scheme." In July 2017, billionaire Howard Marks referred to bitcoin as a pyramid scheme.
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.
Of course, by the end of 2017, the players who were pouring into the basin weren’t interested in building 5-megawatt mines. According to Carlson, mining has now reached the stage where the minimum size for a new commercial mine, given the high levels of difficulty, will soon be 50 megawatts, enough for around 22,000 homes and bigger than one of Amazon Web Services’ immense data centers. Miehe, who has become a kind of broker for out-of-town miners and investors, was fielding calls and emails from much larger players. There were calls from China, where a recent government crackdown on cryptocurrency has miners trying to move operations as large as 200 megawatts to safer ground. And there was a flood of interest from players outside the sector, including big institutional investors from Wall Street, Miami, the Middle East, Europe and Japan, all eager to get in on a commodity that some believe could touch $100,000 by the end of the year. And not all the interest has been so civil. Stories abound of bitcoin miners using hardball tactics to get their mines up and running. Carlson, for example, says some foreign miners tried to bribe building and safety inspectors to let them cut corners on construction. “They are bringing suitcases full of cash,” Carlson says, adding that such ploys invariably backfire. Adds Miehe, “I mean, you know how they talk about the animal spirits—greed and fear? Well, right now, everyone is in full-greed mode.”
In January 2009, the bitcoin network was created when Nakamoto mined the first block of the chain, known as the genesis block. Embedded in the coinbase of this block was the following text: "The Times 03/Jan/2009 Chancellor on brink of second bailout for banks." This note has been interpreted as both a timestamp and a comment on the instability caused by fractional-reserve banking.:18