The buzz in Saint-André: An inside look at bitcoin mining in rural New Brunswick

·4 min read
Hive Blockchain Technologies is finishing building its bitcoin-mining operation in Saint-André. (Shane Fowler/CBC News - image credit)
Hive Blockchain Technologies is finishing building its bitcoin-mining operation in Saint-André. (Shane Fowler/CBC News - image credit)

Nestled between a junkyard and a cedar mill in the rural community of Saint-André is the spot where developers expect nearly one per cent of the world's bitcoin will be mined.

For the last several months, the Vancouver-based company Hive Blockchain Technologies has been building four highly specialized warehouses that will host thousands of computers.

Those individual computers are known as "miners," and they run 24 hours a day to make their owners bitcoin.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

"When this facility is complete, we'll have about 18,000 of these machines operating," said Aydin Kilic, the president and chief operating officer of Hive. "It's almost one per cent of the entire bitcoin mining network is going to be right here in Saint-André."

Bitcoin is a type of cryptocurrency, a digital form of money that has risen in value and popularity around the globe in the last decade. Instead of a physical currency, bitcoin is strictly digital.

Bitcoin also operates without a central banking system. Instead, all bitcoin transactions are tallied on a digital ledger called the blockchain.

Bitcoin mining operations like the one in Saint-Andre act as the bank for bitcoin, constantly tallying the worldwide transactions on the blockchain. Bitcoin mining operations are made up of hundreds, often thousands, of computers creating a decentralized banking network.

The reward for tallying those transactions is bitcoin. And the more computers a person or company dedicates to tallying those transactions, the more bitcoin is paid out.

That's why Hive has built bitcoin mines in Quebec, Sweden and Iceland, and is finishing construction in Saint-André.

Two of the buildings in Saint-André are complete, while technicians are now installing 100 metres of computers, stacked seven high, in a third.

Construction workers are heating the frozen ground and pouring the foundations of a fourth building, which Kilic expects will be completed in the first half of next year.

Once completed, Kilic said, he expects the entire facility to mine about five bitcoin a day.

Over the past year, a single bitcoin has been valued between $30,000 and $85,000 Cdn.

Some people might assume such an operation would be more at home in Silicon Valley. Why build one in a northern New Brunswick community?

According to Kilic, the decision came down to four factors: a favourable tax rate, stable government, access to affordable electricity, and most important, the temperature.

"If you want to talk about optimal environments, well, Saint-André is optimal, and we love it here," Kilic said. "We've got cool, dry temperatures."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Each exterior wall of the warehouses features massive slats that allow cool outside air to drift inside.

That air wafts through a wall of filter paper that runs the entire length of the building. The cold filtered air then flows directly into the mining computers, cooling them.

Once that air is heated by the computer processors, it's pushed toward the centre of the building by the fans built into each miner. It then exits through the roof of the building. It's all done without ductwork or fans, other than the ones built into each computer.

"We've got a beautiful passive design," Kilic said. "A very novel design where we use the cool, dry climate without having to have air conditioning."

With thousands of computers running non-stop, the heat that is generated is tropical, even to Saint-André Mayor Marcel Levesque, who has toured the plant.

"It's crazy, it's crazy," said Levesque. "You never imagine seeing so many computers in a building. Never."

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

Air conditioning would also contribute to the astronomical amount of power being used. According to Kilic,the mining operation will eventually consume about the same amount of electricity used to power more than 7,000 homes.

"In total, the four-building campus will be 70 megawatts when it's complete," said Kilic.

Being in an area near where electricity is generated — at the Grand Falls, Tobique Narrows and Sisson dams — also factored into the decision to build in Saint-André. It's also near where N.B. Power transmission lines intersect, ensuring plenty of electricity for the power-hungry plant.

A few new jobs

Levesque says Saint-André's population is just under 2,000 people. Currently, Hive employs about 70 of them. Most are from the Saint-André and Grand Falls area, and are involved in construction. When it's completed, Kilic expects the operation will employ 20 people, who will work mostly to maintain the miners and for security.

They includes Luc Ouellette from Grand Falls, who said that even though he's worked at Hive for nearly two years, his friends and family still have a hard time understanding what he does for a living.

Shane Fowler/CBC News
Shane Fowler/CBC News

"They don't even know, most of them," said Luc Ouellette, Hive's regional director in New Brunswick. "I tell them what we're doing here, and they really want to visit us and see what's going on.

"It's a big opportunity for us to work locally with next-generation stuff. Being part of that is great."

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