Some nodes are mining nodes (usually referred to as "miners"). These group outstanding transactions into blocks and add them to the blockchain. How do they do this? By solving a complex mathematical puzzle that is part of the bitcoin program, and including the answer in the block. The puzzle that needs solving is to find a number that, when combined with the data in the block and passed through a hash function, produces a result that is within a certain range. This is much harder than it sounds.
In 2013, Mark Gimein estimated electricity consumption to be about 40.9 megawatts (982 megawatt-hours a day). In 2014, Hass McCook estimated 80.7 megawatts (80,666 kW). 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).
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.”
Indeed, for a time, everything seemed to come together for the miners. By mid-2013, Carlson’s first mine, though only 250 kilowatts in size, was mining hundreds of bitcoins a day—enough for him to pay all his power bills and other expenses while “stacking” the rest as a speculative asset that had started to appreciate. By then, bitcoin was shedding its reputation as the currency of drug dealers and data-breach blackmailers. A few legitimate companies, like Microsoft, and even some banks were accepting it. Competing cryptocurrencies were proliferating, and trading sites were emerging. Bitcoin was the hot new thing, and its price surged past $1,100 before settling in the mid-hundreds.
The basin has become a proving ground for the broader debate about the future of blockchain technology. Critics insist that bitcoin will never work as a mainstream currency—it’s slow and far too volatile. Its real function, they say, is as a “store of value”—that is, an investment asset, like gold or company shares—except that, unlike these traditional assets, bitcoin has no real underlying economic value. Rather, critics say, it has become merely another highly speculative bet—much like mortgage-backed derivatives were in the prelude to the financial crisis—and like them, it is just as assured of an implosion.
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.