The Business Times

Bitcoin miners navigate extreme world of crypto power-hunting

Where they set up matters greatly to an industry emphasising decentralisation, independence and other energy-consuming sectors

Published Sat, Jul 17, 2021 · 05:50 AM

New York

ONE weekend in late June, hundreds of gloomy Bitcoin miners crowded into a luxury hotel in western China. They had a big problem: Just weeks earlier, the Chinese government banned cryptocurrency mining over concerns about illicit coal mining and underlying financial risks. Now they had to figure out how to move millions of computers out of the country.

The miners sat in rows of white chairs in a hall at the Gran Melia Chengdu Hotel and listened intently to the executives at Bitmain Technologies, the world's largest mining equipment maker. In between presentations about Texas energy fundamentals and crypto mining in Kazakhstan, the attendees nibbled cupcakes, drank cocktails and discussed the dismal outlook for their local industry.

Bitmain's employees were offering to serve as matchmakers, hooking miners up with data centres in the US, Central Asia and Europe. They also cautioned that an unchecked rush into new markets would jack up costs for all of them. One slide presented at the event read: "Hold Together for Warmth, Say No to Vicious Competition."

Just hours after the conference, the urgency of the situation came into full view. Alex, a Chinese miner who did not want his last name published for fear of government retribution, was out singing karaoke with some of his fellow miners when he called to check in on his machines in the mountains outside Chengdu. His colleague told him that local authorities had just shut off the power to his facility, leaving the mine silent and potentially worthless.

"All my money is gone," he said, cursing as he chugged a beer. "Every day I'm losing money by not running those machines."


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The Chinese miners forced to leave behind the country's cheap electricity from abundant coal and roaring rivers have found themselves thrust into a wild and extreme world of crypto power-hunting.

Just as miners sprinted towards gold fields in California and Alaska over a century ago, Bitcoin miners now are bolting toward any source of inexpensive, reliable power they can find. Their next destinations matter greatly to an industry emphasising decentralisation and independence, and to other energy-consuming sectors, with which they are competing for access to greener power.

Cheaper power

A Bitcoin mining rig does not pull anything out of the ground, of course. Instead, it is usually made up of thousands of computers, specially built to run the complex calculations that maintain the cryptocurrency's network. These computers are stacked on shelves in warehouses, often with huge water-cooling fans.

In China, the warehouses are usually situated close to their power sources, such as standalone hydropower stations and thermal plants affiliated with coal mines. Electricity accounts for about 80 per cent of a miner's operating cost, according to Tyler Page, the chief executive officer of Cipher Mining Technologies.

The miners who complete the calculations are rewarded with new Bitcoin, which has ranged in value from a peak of almost US$65,000 before China outlawed mining to about US$33,500 today. Around 65 per cent of the world's Bitcoin mining took place in China as of April last year, according to the latest data from the University of Cambridge.

Cheaper power is the reason China's neighbor, Kazakhstan, has become a top destination for fleeing miners. The former Soviet nation has over 22 GW of electric power capacity, mostly from coal and gas-fired stations. It also borders the region of Xinjiang, which once held nearly 36 per cent of the world's Bitcoin mining.

Bitcoin miners can get electricity for as low as about three US cents per kWh, according to Dmitriy Ivanov, sales director at Almaty-based Enegix. The country is also cool enough that the data centres do not require any air conditioning to keep them from overheating, which can add as much as 30 per cent more power consumption.

Enegix runs a server-hosting business in Kazakhstan, where it is building data centres where miners can pay a fee to plug in their machines. At the end of last year, the company built its biggest site yet, a 180 MW data centre on 37 acres (15 ha) of land near the north-eastern town of Ekibastuz. The region is an industrial hub fuelled by one of the largest coal-fired power stations in the world outside China.

In June, Mr Ivanov started to get messages daily from miners in Sichuan and Inner Mongolia who needed to relocate after Beijing's crackdown. "We stand to benefit from it, but these people are facing devastating losses in terms of all the infrastructure that has to be deployed elsewhere," he said.

Enegix's clients will soon be shipping about 10,000 mining machines, a mix of Bitmain's S19Pro and the Whatsminer M21S model from Chinese manufacturer MicroBT, to Kazakhstan by plane. Transport by land from China would be cheaper, but trucks can get held up at the border for weeks. Spending that time mining Bitcoin instead can make up for the extra cost of airfare.

Didar Bekbauov runs another Almaty-based Bitcoin mining hosting company, a smaller competitor to Enegix. He was similarly inundated with messages. "So many Chinese are reaching out to us and asking for help to relocate the equipment," he said. "They ask every Kazakh they know to help them with electricity."

But there is a limit to Kazakhstan's potential: Its electric grid has added only a little over 3 GW of capacity in the last 20 years, data from BloombergNEF showed. That is leaving little room for the surge in mining machines to get connected. Mr Bekbauov now has to turn customers away, adding: "Every spare kilowatt is already booked."

Renewable sources

For some miners, the decision to move out of China is also an opportunity to clean up their power supply. It is difficult to say how dirty Bitcoin mining is overall, but it is a reflection of the power supply to a mine's location.

Earlier this year, tens of thousands of mining machines consumed about 45 million kWh of power per month in an area of western China that depends on coal-burning power plants, the official Xinhua News Agency reported. That is about 15,000 tonnes of standard coal. Overall, mining machines globally consume about as much power as all of Bangladesh, a country of more than 160 million people.

While some of that power is green, the majority of the world's electricity still comes from burning fossil fuels. An alliance of companies launched the Crypto Climate Accord earlier this year to address criticisms, and vowed to help the industry shift to 100 per cent renewable power consumption.

Crypto miners are coming up against a much bigger drive to decarbonise power to combat climate change. The percentage of energy from renewable sources would need to increase to about two-thirds of supply by 2050, up from around 12 per cent in 2020, to keep temperatures from rising more than 1.5 degrees Celsius from pre-industrial levels, according to the International Energy Agency. Countries around the world, including China, the US and the EU will have to ramp up construction of wind farms and solar parks to come close to hitting their targets.

Renewable energy sources like wind and sunshine may be abundant at times, but demand for them is set to surge as cars, home heating and heavy industries increasingly shift to electricity. The Nordic region, which has long been a popular Bitcoin mining spot because of its ample hydropower, began running out of excess electricity earlier this year as industrial users ramped up production.

"There's a more noble use of renewable power than Bitcoin mining," said Peter Wall, chief executive officer of London-listed mining company Argo Blockchain. "But the fact is people are going to mine Bitcoin, full stop. It's not going away."

Regulatory concerns

Miners also want confidence that they will not wake up one morning to news that their business has been outlawed again. Bit Digital, a Nasdaq-listed mining company, began moving some of the 30,000 machines it operated in China to North America last October. By the time Beijing cracked down, Bit Digital was able to keep mining with as little disruption as possible.

Even within the US, there are regulatory differences among states. Cipher Mining Technologies, the US arm of Netherlands-based Bitfury Holding, is working to build up mining capacity in Texas, the only state with a deregulated power grid, and Ohio because of the state's cheap power prices and low-carbon power sources. A state like New York, where lawmakers previously proposed a bill that would have limited crypto mining in the state, is not as attractive.

The physical attributes of a site matter too. Extreme temperatures in either direction are a negative, as is an overly dry and gritty environment. "Literally the dust blows into the computers, and you have physical problems," said Cipher's Mr Page.

Some of Bit Digital's mining rigs were shipped to a data centre in Kearney, Nebraska, where the company already has about 5,000 machines noisily mining Bitcoin. "You can't hear a damn thing in here!" chief executive officer Bryan Bullett yelled on a recent tour of the facility as the machines' fans whipped his hair around.

A warehouse a mile from the data centre holds Bit Digital's displaced Chinese rigs. The machines were piled to the ceiling on wooden pallets, waiting for an opening so they could be put to work. "It's not great to see them sitting here in boxes, because they could be plugged in and making money," said Mr Bullett. He estimated that 500,000 mining machines are being shipped out of China as a result of the crackdown.

Bit Digital is considering setting up operations outside North America, but local regulations and stability are a concern. The president of El Salvador announced last month that his country would be the first to adopt Bitcoin as legal tender, and directed the state-run geothermal electric company to come up with a plan for volcano-powered Bitcoin mining. Mr Bullett and other Bit Digital executives flew to the Central American country late last month for two days of meetings with the president's Cabinet. Bitcoin miners from other countries want to know that El Salvador's enthusiasm for the digital currency will survive a change in leadership.

"The question is naturally going to arise about stability," Mr Bullett said, especially with a capital-intensive industry like mining. Asked whether he would send Bit Digital's machines to a site El Salvador is developing, the chief executive paused. "It depends on the details," he said. "It's certainly worth monitoring."

Beyond the large US-based mining companies, there are also smaller middlemen making a business out of the big move. Ever since news of the beginning of the crackdown in China first broke in late May, Tim Kelly, chief executive officer of BitOoda, has barely slept. He started BitOoda in 2017 to provide research, investment banking and other services to Bitcoin-mining clients.

From his beach-front home on the island of Nantucket off the coast of Massachusetts, Mr Kelly spent most nights this summer on the phone with Chinese miners. When the sun rose, he would start calling people in the US who could provide sites with enough electricity to host mining operations. "There's so much absolute desperation to secure sites as quickly as possible," he said.

While China's restrictions strangled the Bitcoin mining industry for now, the pain will only be temporary. With increasing capacity in places like the US, BitOoda estimates that the amount of computing power used for mining will be back to its pre-crackdown level by early 2023 and continue growing for the rest of the decade.

Business for BitOoda had been progressing steadily. By May of this year, the company built up a pipeline of under 500 MW of grid connections for Bitcoin miners looking to plug into American power. Mr Kelly's sleepless nights helped that figure boom to about 2,000 MW of deals in the works, with about 70 per cent going to Chinese clients.

It is not easy to just set up a Bitcoin mining operation out of nowhere. Mr Kelly's clients need not only power supply, but also substations and transformers, devices that filter the high powered volts in the power grid to be gentle enough that they will not fry all those valuable computers. Setting all the machinery takes time, in some cases as long as 18 months to get up and running.

Most of them have already made down payments on new machines and are looking for a new address in a hospitable location. This time, they want to make sure the sites will last. For many, that means trying to connect to renewable power sources, which the Biden administration has signalled are the future of the American electric grid. Chinese clients are even willing to pay higher prices for green credentials. BLOOMBERG


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