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Just because miners want power doesn’t mean they get it. Some inquiries are withdrawn. And all three county public utilities have considerable discretion when it comes to granting power requests. But by law, they must consider any legitimate request for power, which has meant doing costly studies and holding hearings—sparking a prolonged, public debate over this new industry’s impact on the basin’s power economy. There are concerns about the huge costs of new substations, transmission wires and other infrastructure necessary to accommodate these massive loads. In Douglas County, where the bulk of the new mining projects are going in, a brand new 84-megawatt substation that should have been adequate for the next 30 to 50 years of normal population growth was fully subscribed in less than a year.
The process of mining bitcoins works like a lottery. Bitcoin miners are competing to produce hashes—alphanumeric strings of a fixed length that are calculated from data of an arbitrary length. They’re producing the hashes from a combination of three pieces of data: new blocks of Bitcoin transactions; the last block on the blockchain; and a random number. These are collectively referred to as the “block header” for the current block. Each time miners perform the hash function on the block header with a new random number, they get a new result. To win the lottery, a miner must find a hash that begins with a certain number of zeroes. Just how many zeroes are required is a shifting parameter determined by how much computing power is attached to the Bitcoin network. Every two weeks, on average, the mining software automatically readjusts the number of leading zeros needed—the difficulty level—by looking at how fast new blocks of Bitcoin transactions were added. The algorithm is aiming for a latency of 10 minutes between blocks. When miners boost the computing power on the network, they temporarily increase the rate of block creation. The network senses the change and then ratchets up the difficulty level. When a miner’s computer finds a winning hash, it broadcasts the block header to its next peers in the Bitcoin network, which check it and then propagate it further.
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.
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.”
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.