Since bitcoin emerged from the internet’s muddy bottom into a global asset class, there have been many attempts to understand what this computation-based currency might mean for the world. No claim about bitcoin, or “the blockchain,” as the general category of technology is known, is too big for advocates (“the most disruptive tech in decades”) or detractors (the “biggest bubble in human history”).
But a profile of the town of East Wenatchee, Washington, by Paul Roberts in Politico Magazine is a must-read revelation about the physical reality of bitcoin mining. Whatever else bitcoin might be, it is—first and foremost—a way of converting electricity into money.
Bitcoin mining is what we call programming computers to do arbitrarily complicated calculations in a puzzle competition that gets harder as time goes on. The hardware and software necessary to do this are, more or less, commoditized. Mining has always been an aspirational name, but if we accept the metaphor, the miners are mining electricity.
So, to make money as a bitcoin miner, the only things that really matter are scale and access to cheap electricity. That’s sent bitcoin miners scurrying all over the Earth looking for low electricity prices. They tend to find it near big dams, which corral river water through massive turbines. In the right geographical circumstances, this can generate the cheapest power on earth. And East Wenatchee is one of these places, thanks to the Columbia River and the Rocky Mountains that lend the water its power.