Wu claims that Antbleed, which has since been patched, was only vestigial code left in by mistake when engineers were trying to build a kill switch for a customer’s own use. There was some skepticism about this explanation, but because the S9’s firmware is open source, users are confident in the patched version. Still, the discovery of it was a startling reminder of the need for diversity in the mining hardware industry.
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).
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.
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.)
What separated these survivors from the quitters and the double-downers, Carlson concluded, was simply the price of electricity. Survivors either lived in or had moved to places like China or Iceland or Venezuela, where electricity was cheap enough for bitcoin to be profitable. Carlson knew that if he could find a place where the power wasn’t just cheap, but really cheap, he’d be able to mine bitcoin both profitably and on an industrial scale.
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.”
Another advancement in mining technology was the creation of the mining pool, which is a way for individual miners to work together to solve blocks even faster. As a result of mining in a pool with others, the group solves many more blocks than each miner would on his own. Bitcoin mining pools exist because the computational power required to mine Bitcoins on a regular basis is so vast that it is beyond the financial and technical means of most people. Rather than investing a huge amount of money in mining equipment that will (hopefully) give you a return over a period of decades, a mining pool allows the individual to accumulate smaller amounts of Bitcoin more frequently.
For all the peril, others here see the bitcoin boom as a kind of necessary opportunity. They argue that the era of cheap local power was coming to an end even before bitcoin arrived. One big reason: The region’s hydropower is no longer as prized by outside markets. In California, which has historically paid handsomely for the basin’s “green” hydropower, demand has fallen especially dramatically thanks to rapid growth in the Golden State’s wind and solar sectors. Simply put, the basin may soon struggle to find another large customer so eager to take those surplus megawatts—particularly one, like blockchain mining, that might bring other economic benefits. Early data from Douglas County, for example, suggest that the sector’s economic value, especially the sales tax from nonstop server upgrades, may offset any loss in surplus power sales, according to Jim Huffman, a Douglas County port commissioner.
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.
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.
Across the Mid-Columbia Basin, miners faced an excruciating dilemma: cut their losses and walk, or keep mining for basically nothing in the hopes that the cryptocurrency market would somehow turn around. Many smaller operators simply folded and left town—often leaving behind trashed sites and angry landlords. Even larger players began to draw lines in the sand. Carlson started moving out of mining and into hosting and running sites for other miners. Others held on. Among the latter was Salcido, the Wenatchee contractor-turned-bitcoin miner who grew up in the valley. “What I had to decide was, do I think this recovers, or does the chart keep going like this and become nothing?” Salcido told me recently. We were in his office in downtown Wenatchee, and Salcido, a clean-cut 43-year-old who is married with four young kids, was showing me a computer chart of the bitcoin price during what was one of the most agonizing periods of his life. “Month over month, you had to make this decision: Am I going to keep doing this, or am I going to call it?”
The unit of account of the bitcoin system is a bitcoin. Ticker symbols used to represent bitcoin are BTC[b] and XBT.[c] Its Unicode character is ₿.:2 Small amounts of bitcoin used as alternative units are millibitcoin (mBTC), and satoshi (sat). Named in homage to bitcoin's creator, a satoshi is the smallest amount within bitcoin representing 0.00000001 bitcoins, one hundred millionth of a bitcoin. A millibitcoin equals 0.001 bitcoins, one thousandth of a bitcoin or 100,000 satoshis.