The purpose of Bitcoin mining is to ensure the integrity of the publicly visible distributed transaction ledger (blockchain) without the existance of a central authority. The Bitcoin protocol achieves this by requiring that miners complete of a proof of work computation which, at its essence, sends electrons through the gauntlet and in exchange the miner receives a cash award.
Never before has there been a cottage industry that simply monetizes electricity. Mining consumes power in a manner in which it can nearly directly be converted to cash.
All miners compete for a relatively fixed amount of bitcoins produced which are worth roughly $1.4 million each month using the current BTC/USD exchange rate of about $6.40 USD.
As a result of this competition, mining for profit is generally only viable in certain situations that are available only to certain individuals. This situation specifically refers to those who either build massive operations and enjoy the resulting economy of scale or, increasingly so, to those who aren’t directly paying for the cost of electricity.
There haven’t been enough FGPAs for mining shipped yet to knock the GPU off its pedestal as the technology responsible for the vast majority of hashing that occurs today.
Other than the hobbyist-level mining that occurs, success at mining commercially has meant the procurement, deployment and administration of large amounts of GPU equipment. Because of the noise, heat and physical accommodations necessary to support such a mining operation, only a relatively small number (perhaps in the low hundreds) of these operations exist. An even fewer number are enjoying the benefit where electricity is included in the lease agreement.
The arrival of specialized hardware, such as the Bitforce single from Butterfly Labs (BFL) and Enterpoint’s Cairnsmore1 put out much less heat (each about the same as a light bulb) and noise so they are more suitable for use in a residential home-office setting or college dorm even. Details on ASIC designs promised by BFL have not yet been released but they too might become suitable for use at your home office desk.
Faced with the competition from these more power-efficient methods, GPU mining has not been shutting down but instead has been shifting. Mining operators paying for electricity at average or above average utility rates (e.g., $0.15 per kWh or higher) have been selling off their GPU equipment and buying FPGAs.
There is still a healthy market for this used GPU hardware from those operators whose electric costs are much lower and from those whose power consumption is included in their residential or commercial lease.
This in effect transfers much of the cost of mining to the landlords who receive none of the benefit except, perhaps, in the greater likelihood that the mining operator pays the rent on time.
Most landlords who include power in the rent only know power consumption levels for the entire property and not on a per-unit basis. While smart meters provide landlords with the technical ability to do utility submetering, rent controls and housing regulations often prohibit the use of submetering.
Bitcoin mining has not even been discovered by most landlords as being a contributor to utility expenses so there aren’t even clauses in most residential lease agreements which prohibit consumption of power for non-residential purposes.
That doesn’t mean landlords are not taking action to lower their electric costs. Sustainability consultants and regulators promote a green lease to landlords and building owners as a tool to help share the burden for improving energy efficiency with the aim of reducing consumption.
Because Bitcoin mining is a 24/7 operation, it can easily represent half or more of a residence’s power consumption. It is only a matter of time before the landlords that have been unwittingly subsidizing these commercial endeavors notice an increase in power consumption and begin to investigate.
Before investing significant amounts in mining equipment those operators who rent and plan to take advantage of utilities being included might wish to review the lease documents to become aware of any “commercial use” exclusions. Also they should be aware of the potential that a month-to-month lease could suddenly change where utility submetering or other cost transfer might be imposed.
As far as those who mine using GPUs and pay directly for the electricity themselves? Unless the electric rate billed is well below the average rate, now might be a good time to start thinking of where a better home might be for those inefficient GPUs.
Written on 26 Jun 2012.