This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town

This Is What Happens When Bitcoin Miners Take Over Your Town, by Patrick Brown.

Eastern Washington had cheap power and tons of space. Then the suitcases of cash started arriving. …

Bitcoin mining — the complex process in which computers solve a complicated math puzzle to win a stack of virtual currency — uses an inordinate amount of electricity, and thanks to five hydroelectric dams that straddle this stretch of the [Columbia River], about three hours east of Seattle, miners could buy that power more cheaply here than anywhere else in the nation. Long before locals had even heard the words “cryptocurrency” or “blockchain,” Miehe and his peers realized that this semi-arid agricultural region known as the Mid-Columbia Basin was the best place to mine bitcoin in America — and maybe the world. …

The trick, though, was finding a location where you could put all that cheap power to work. You needed an existing building, because in those days, when bitcoin was trading for just a few dollars, no one could afford to build something new. You needed space for a few hundred high-speed computer servers, and also for the heavy-duty cooling system to keep them from melting down as they churned out the trillions of calculations necessary to mine bitcoin. Above all, you needed a location that could handle a lot of electricity—a quarter of a megawatt, maybe, or even a half a megawatt, enough to light up a couple hundred homes. …

Generating a single bitcoin takes a lot more servers than it used to — and a lot more power. … 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.” …

Outsiders are so eager to turn the basin’s power into cryptocurrency that this winter, several would-be miners from Asia flew their private jet into the local airport, took a rental car to one of the local dams, and, according to a utility official, politely informed staff at the dam visitors center, “We want to see the dam master because we want to buy some electricity.” …

By the end of 2018, according to some estimates, miners here could account for anywhere from 15 to 30 percent of all bitcoin mining in the world, and impressive shares of other cryptocurrencies, such as Ethereum and Litecoin. …

There have been disputes between miners and locals, bankruptcies and bribery attempts, lawsuits, even a kind of intensifying guerrilla warfare between local utility crews and a shadowy army of bootleg miners who set up their servers in basements and garages and max out the local electrical grids. …

A few miles from the shuttered carwash, David Carlson stands at the edge of a sprawling construction site and watches workers set the roof on a Giga Pod, a self-contained crypto mine that Carlson designed to be assembled in a matter of weeks. … Demand for hosting services in the basin is so high that a desperate miner offered Carlson a Lamborghini if Carlson would bump him to the head of the pod waiting list. “I didn’t take the offer,” Carlson assures me. “And I like Lamborghinis!” …

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. … 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.

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. …

By the end of 2017, even with the rapidly rising difficulty, the per-bitcoin cost for basin miners was around $2,000, producing profit margins similar to those of the early years, only on a vastly larger scale. Marc Bevand, a French-born computer scientist who briefly mined in the basin and is now a tech investor, estimates that, by December, a hypothetical investor who had built a 5-megawatt mine in the basin just four months earlier would’ve recovered the $7 million investment and would now be clearing $140,000 in profit every 24 hours. “Nowadays,” he told me back in December, miners “are literally swimming in cash.” …

But Bolz, a longtime critic of cryptocurrency, says local concerns go beyond economics: Many residents he hears from aren’t keen to see so much public power sold to an industry whose chief product is, in their minds, of value only to speculators and criminals. “I mean, this is a conservative community, and they’re like, ‘What the hell’s wrong with dollars?’” says Bolz. “If you just went out and did a poll of Chelan County, and asked people, ‘Do you want us to be involved in the bitcoin industry, they would say not only ‘No,’ but ‘Hell no.’” …

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.” …

Gone are the glory days when commercial miners could self-finance with their own [bitcoin] stacks. Today, you need outside financing — debt — which, for Miehe, who now has two young children, would mean an unacceptable level of stress.

hat-tip Robert