Cryptocurrency mining – the power behind our decentralized currencies – has reached a fork in the road of its young life. Giga Watt filed for bankruptcy in late November this year, Genesis Mining is facing hard times, and Bitmain’s future is in limbo.
But despite massive depreciation, and miners leaving the cryptocurrency space en masse, it’s not all doom and gloom for cryptocurrency as a whole. Institutional investors are coming into the crypto space, and the recent decline in mining could be good for persistent miners, mining farms and pools worldwide.
How Centralized Mining Failed
If there’s one lesson for miners to learn from in this bear market, it is keeping down the cost of mining, with emphasis on efficiency over scaling up. Over the course of the year, mining has been increasingly unprofitable even for some enterprise miners. There are a number of compounding factors for the dry spell such as:
- recent decline in the cryptocurrency market
- strict regulations and increased power rates for cryptocurrency mining
- rapid increase in mining difficulty – faster than market demand and cryptocurrency adoption
- cost of outlays in running the business increase with size (e.g. bigger facilities, cooling systems, power consumption, hiring more employees for maintenance and upkeep)
Diminishing returns over a period of time (e.g., Bitcoin rewards halve every four years) coupled with volatility in the cryptocurrency markets makes it very risky for miners to scale up beyond a certain threshold. In many cases, mining profitability is only as good as the market conditions. The recent turn of events with the price of cryptocurrency, and the equivalent of approximately 1.3 million Antminer S9 units turning off as of late proves how large-scale miners have become so dependent on cryptocurrency markets in terms of mining profitability.
The arms race towards bigger mining facilities and acquiring more efficient but expensive mining hardware also tends to backfire for some mining businesses who are now struggling to pay off their debts. State regulations have also put a lot of strain to the mining industry by imposing higher rates for cryptocurrency mining. This, along with rapid increase in network hash rate/difficulty, and a long drawn-out bear market spells disaster for many businesses in the cryptocurrency mining industry, particularly those who have overspent with expectation of higher returns through market demand and cryptocurrency adoption.
Enterprise-level miners might have increased their mining power with a large share of the network hash rate which might have previously worked but because of the way proof-of-work cryptocurrencies such as Bitcoin are built large-scale miners are running into difficulties. Miners are finding with increased network hash rate there will come a point where mining and maintenance costs start to eat up their gains unless they find access to abundant or much cheaper energy source as soon as possible, or if cryptocurrency continues to gain widespread adoption. (Imagine if every miner in the world does the same thing and Bitcoin suddenly drops to $1,000. How long can these enterprise miners hold on until Bitcoin goes back up again to $20,000 or until mining difficulty drops significantly lower?)
Lastly, centralized mining puts a lot of strain to the power grid that governments won’t have much of a choice but impose exorbitant rates for mining operations in order to “force” miners to slow down, or run the risk of overloading the grid, severely affecting all other industries in the country. The only option for large-scale miners at this point is scaling down and help redistribute hash power to the cryptocurrency network, e.g. shipping their mining rigs to places with abundant and more affordable energy source. (In Venezuela, it only costs $531 to mine Bitcoin).
Why Decentralized Mining Is Crucial for the Cryptocurrency Space
More secure compared to centralized mining. Centralization of mining power misses the whole point of having a decentralized cryptocurrency such as Bitcoin. Cryptocurrency mining was never meant to be a centralized endeavor, but a shared obligation to secure the network where one’s willingness to share computing power to mine transactions and prevent double spend attacks is rewarded with cryptocurrency. Centralization creates weaknesses to an inherently secure decentralized network by establishing a single point of failure and opens up the possibility of double spends and censoring transactions. (This inevitably results in weaker adoption and/or the cryptocurrency’s demise.)
Distributes risks and rewards to miners. Higher hash rates do make a difference who gets the mining reward. But at the end of the day, it all boils down to probability. Suppose every miner in the world mines at exactly the same hash rate. The way Bitcoin’s algorithm was designed meant that there is no particular way to tell who will be the first to find the next hash since they would all be making random guesses at a given rate. Higher hash rates increases the likelihood of being the first to make the right guess, but so is the risk (power consumption = money lost). A better alternative to mining centralization is by using mining pools or by having small mining farms spread out to places where cost of running the mining the business is much cheaper.
Distributes power consumption. With less centralization in mining power, miners will be able to utilize cheaper electricity instead of relying solely on the power grid. It would also encourage miners to be more creative and explore ways to make cryptocurrency mining a lot greener, or, as mentioned earlier, find places with abundant supply of energy source (e.g. hydroelectric, geothermal, solar, etc.)
The 2018 bear market has been an eye-opener for all of us, not only in terms of volatility and value of cryptocurrency, but also the dangers and consequences of going beyond what is intended for in cryptocurrency mining – decentralized and cost-effective. Bitcoin was just as secure back when people mined them in their PCs and laptops as it is today with more powerful ASIC miners and GPUs. It’s just a matter of perspective. Hopefully, this year has brought us some important lessons to help us with our journey in cryptocurrency for the year 2019.