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一位景观设计师如何成为比特币挖矿之王

Shawn Tully
2022-03-18

这位来自新奥尔良的难民在他从前最不可能成功的地方实现了梦想。

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在2019年7月闷热的一天,查德·埃弗里特·哈里斯首次来到了美国得克萨斯州的小镇罗克代尔。此时,这个城镇与他本人一样,都倒霉到了极点。两年前,美国铝业公司(Alcoa)关闭了位于该地的全球最大铝厂,而遭受重创的经济仍然在缓慢复苏。中国的比特大陆公司也曾经拿出计划,意欲将巨型废弃铝厂改造为另一个工业奇迹——全球最大的比特币矿场。虽然在短时间里风光无限,但该计划自2018年秋季比特币(Bitcoin)的价格暴跌后便销声匿迹。据估计,该工厂共有3000名工人,其中88%失去了工作,对市政预算来说无异于当头一棒。罗克代尔位于大草原,有5900位居民,距离奥斯汀北部有一小时的车程。与该镇同样规模的飞地则鲜有这种由盛转衰的经历。

作为一位耀眼的连续创业者,哈里斯似乎坐上了一趟最为疯狂的过山车,长期以来一直大起大落。他的事业如今和罗克代尔一样急转直下。对土生土长的新奥尔良人哈里斯来说,这个位于得克萨斯州中部的偏远之所并非是东山再起的理想之地。事实上,他以前从未关注过得克萨斯州的农村地区。他对《财富》杂志说:“说到文化冲击!我住在新奥尔良的上城区,距米其林星级餐厅和世界级美食只有几个街区。当我第一天开车经过这些连绵的山丘时,我看到是各种写着‘世界上最美味的汉堡’和‘得州最好吃的汉堡’的标语牌。然而,我在吃了一口后发现,这些汉堡使用的是同一家食品服务公司制作的冷冻肉饼。”哈里斯曾经经营过一家生意不错的景观设计企业,新奥尔良的顶级高尔夫球场和大多数知名公园的植被均是这家公司的手笔。实际上,他还捣鼓出了一些让自己赚得盆满钵满的古怪玩意,例如在线销售预先装饰好的圣诞树。在出借人的巨大压力之下,他选择关闭这些业务。几个月后,他把景观公司的特许经营权免费转让给了他的高级副手。他再度复出,在新奥尔良租来的仓库里为一位日本合作伙伴的比特币挖矿提供托管服务,但进展的不顺利,因为在路易斯安那州做生意的成本,包括支付高昂的电费,使得比特币挖矿业务无利可图。

2021年10月10日,Whinstone US公司的首席执行官查德·哈里斯在参观该公司位于美国得克萨斯州罗克代尔的矿厂时,指着将安装比特币挖矿机的位置。图片来源:Mark Felix—AFP/Getty Images

不过,哈里斯还是把罗克代尔视为他理想中的黄金之国。简而言之,他想实现世界领先的比特币挖矿设备制造商比特大陆公司,迄今为止未能实现的目标:打造一家大型比特币挖矿公司,就算做不到世界第一,也要跻身世界前列。对哈里斯来说,公司运营的成功取决于两大因素:巨大的规模和极其便宜的电力。与新奥尔良不同的是,罗克代尔在这两方面都有着充足的供应,哪怕用罗克代尔味道平平的汉堡来换取家乡的美味也值得。但哈里斯坚持认为,吸引他的不仅是丰厚的利润,还有一种不羁的自由。他说:“我把在罗克代尔开采比特币看成是一种退出策略。这个方法能够解决我的所有问题,并建立一家企业,让每个人都可以大把赚钱。我们偶然发现了一个名为比特币的产品,这种产品利润巨大,在金融方面又不受银行机构的约束。我喜欢这个理念。在罗克代尔,我又拿回了管控权。我会让人们做他们从未想过的事情,包括我自己,并借此创造奇迹。”

在不到三年的时间里,52岁、头发不多、留着山羊胡子的哈里斯把自己重新塑造成了比特币挖矿基础设施之王,并帮助小小的罗克代尔成为该行业热闹喧嚣的世界之都。迅速发展的Whinstone公司在比特币矿业中的地位,如同汽车行业中的大众公司(VW)的沃尔夫斯堡工厂和飞机行业波音公司(Boeing)的埃弗里特工厂。自从2019年11月初破土动工以来,哈里斯已经将一块占地100英亩(约404685.64平方米)、曾经属于美国铝业公司的森林用地,改造为全球最大的比特币挖矿中心(按照总“算力”衡量),距离进展缓慢的比特大陆项目并不远。该项目现已建成七个巨大的仓库,还有三个仍然在建设中,总面积相当于近10个足球场,在2022年年底完工后能够容纳12万台最先进的比特大陆蚂蚁矿机(Antminer)计算机。Whinstone US的工厂已经拥有400兆瓦的电力容量,几乎是达拉斯市中心电力需求的两倍。

然而,作为一位狂热的公路探险自行车骑手,哈里斯依然喜欢在砂石地上骑行,并踩着踏板以最高速度前进。Whinstone公司将在2022年年底前达到750兆瓦的惊人容量。届时,该矿厂所生成的代码或“哈希”,将以12.8 EH/s(即每秒10的18次方哈希)的速度来挖掘新的比特币。这意味着,哈里斯及其新奥尔良牛仔们建造这个单一工厂所提供的算力,大约将占到全球整个比特币网络算力的七分之一。单个矿厂挖掘的新比特币数量取决于其掌控的整体哈希率。这意味着在未来几年,Whinstone公司将成为全球新比特币的开采大户。在承担建设比特币帝国的新任务之后,哈里斯预测Whinstone公司最终可能会开采全球十分之一的比特币。他坦然地接受了这一成就。他说:“面对比特币4万美元的售价,任何人都想尝试进入这个行业。我们在没有人敢做的时候创建了这项业务。在我们创业之初,比特币的价格在4000美元左右,挖矿似乎蕴含着巨大风险。”

哈里斯和他的团队完成了Whinstone公司的所有设计和建造工作,目前依然掌管着这家公司。然而,他们持有该公司的时间并不长。由于缺乏Whinstone公司所需的巨额资金,他们在2019年年底将公司卖给了德国的Northern Data公司。2021年5月,位于科罗拉多州城堡石的Riot Blockchain公司以6.51亿美元的价格从Northern Data公司的手中又收购了Whinstone。如今,哈里斯担任Whinstone公司的首席执行官,Whinstone公司贡献了Riot公司大部分的收入来源,亦是其未来增长的引擎。顷刻间,对Whinstone公司的收购使Riot公司跻身顶尖比特币挖矿上市公司之列。Riot公司的算力在今年年底将达到近13 EH/s的水平,排名第三位,位列算力预计为15 EH/s的Core Scientific公司之后,距离算力13.3 EH/s的Marathon Digital公司仅有一步之遥。Riot公司的收购改变了Whinstone公司的业务模式。此前,该公司主要为第三方矿主提供服务,而这些矿主则为哈里斯团队提供的厂房租赁、电力、维护和所有其他服务支付不菲的费用。虽然Whinstone公司仍然为外部客户提供服务,但Riot公司已经将主要精力转移到为自己开采比特币之中。今年1月,Riot全公司开采了458枚比特币,价值超过2000万美元,其中绝大部分是Whinstone公司为自己开采的,而且其2022年年底的开采量有望增长一倍多。

此外,以比特币目前约4万美元的价格来看,Whinstone公司的利润非常丰厚。一个主要原因是其极低的电力成本,每度电仅为2.4美分。据《财富》杂志估计,Whinstone公司的劳动力、电力和设备的支出约为每枚比特币15000美元。B. Riley公司的分析师卢卡斯·派普斯预测,如果Whinstone公司在年底火力全开,以每枚比特币价格4万美元计算,Riot公司的销售额就将达到大约6亿美元,同时其息税折旧摊销前利润率(Ebita)将达到80%。Riot将一举成为全球排名前三位的挖矿上市公司,而且利润率亦是名列前茅。

在全球最大的比特币矿场中,Whinstone公司到底处于什么水平?毫无疑问,它在北美排名第一位。不过,它在全球的排名很难衡量,因为伊朗、哈萨克斯坦和俄罗斯等主要生产国的矿场规模信息并没有对外公布。分析师派普斯指出:“我不想贸然说Whinstone公司是最大的矿场,但我不知道还有哪家公司的容量甚至达到了Whinstone公司目前的400兆瓦,更不用说高于Whinstone公司今年的700兆瓦目标了。Whinstone公司很可能已经成为世界上最大的矿场。”

新奥尔良市极为崇尚即兴表演,是爵士乐的发源地;而在得克萨斯州,投机者孤注一掷的故事就像其土壤中的仙人掌一样根植于其文化中。哪怕是在这两个地区,哈里斯的故事依然引人入胜,因为这段异常轻松有趣的经历展现了一个人如何白手起家成为加密货币大亨。这种有着无穷能量的个性更像是一个寓意极深的故事。他对我说:“我有过令人难以置信的成功和失败。”哈里斯把自己惊人的韧劲归功于坚守自己挚爱的信条:“忧患造就强者,安乐滋生弱者,而弱者又会带来忧患。”

早期的比特币挖矿尝试

哈里斯由离异的母亲抚养长大。他的母亲也是一名果敢的企业家,其经营的会议生意经常以失败告终。他回忆说:“母亲变得异常紧张,整天忧心忡忡,她宁愿待在我们的酒店房间里。在14岁那年,我不得不前往会议厅去维持会序。”他的母亲为一个自由主义组织举办活动,该组织倡导购买黄金和白银,并对纸币价值的长久性表示怀疑;哈里斯称,该组织的理念继承者们将支持比特币。他说:“这是一个由非美元货币主导的亚文化。我的母亲会带领团队去访问南非和阿富汗的金矿。”还是青少年的他则负责将知名人物从机场接到活动现场。他说:“太不可思议了,我竟然成为了明星们的司机,其中就有亨利·基辛格和乔治·戈登·利迪等人。”哈里斯没有接受过高等教育。他说:“我在新奥尔良大学(University of New Orleans)就待过一天,然后就退学了。学校把母亲支付学费的退给了我,而我用这些钱购买了草坪修剪机。我当时实在是不好意思告诉母亲,自己在随后的两个月中一直在假装上学。”

哈里斯将其在青少年创建的事业发展成为一家大型景观公司。他回忆说:“在我们所做的一些项目中,有的得种500颗树和4万颗同一植物,并安装数英里长的灌溉管道。这对于打造Whinstone来说是一个很好的经验。”他的代表作有新奥尔良雕塑花园(New Orleans Sculpture Garden)和奥杜邦公园高尔夫球场(Audubon Park Golf Course),后者是新奥尔良市中心附近的一个公共网球场,因为其华丽的绿化而闻名。哈里斯还经营着一个家居卖场和园艺店,销售各种商品,从树苗一直到人造石种植机,再到珠宝。然而在2015年期间,哈里斯关闭了其店面并开始转战线上的独家销售业务。他在线上出售装饰齐全的圣诞树,并借此见证了互联网销售的力量。他说:“我是第一个吃螃蟹的人。我会从北卡罗来纳州购买圣诞树,然后安装手工串起来的灯泡。我会在10天内交付圣诞树,然后在圣诞节之后拿回来。有人怀疑这项业务是否可行,因为客户理应需要‘触摸和感知’圣诞树。然而在互联网时代,人们图的就是个方便。我一年可以销售2000颗提前装好灯饰的圣诞树。新奥尔良民众在1月都还保留着其圣诞树。”

尽管圣诞假期营销大获成功,但哈里斯将其实体园艺店面转换为线上平台的银行家思维,被证明是一场灾难。他表示:“我能够这样说,我与出借人没有达成一致意见。”哈里斯发现了一个可以重启其职业的新领域。在数年之前,他当时还在念9年级的小儿子阿什顿曾经使用过一种又酷又新的“数字货币”,并利用其在线上购物。哈里斯说:“是阿什顿让我认识了比特币。”

2017年,哈里斯、当时27岁的CrossFit健身房老板莱尔·塞里奥特(如今是Whinstone的首席运营官)和大一辍学的阿什顿,创建了一个小型试点项目,共计部署了300台计算机。当时,阿什顿戴着蓝色的假发。他的父亲说:“阿什顿从辍学回家之后决定,这便是他想要做的事情。”他与哈里斯一样,被创业的浪漫情怀所深深吸引。即便在冬天,这些计算机亦会让仓库的温度升到100华氏度(约37.78摄氏度),其哈希率也会受到影响。为了降低温度,这支团队打造了一个20英尺(约6.1米)多高的长方形木盒,来放置一个机架的计算机。他们还使用从家得宝(Home Depot)购买的部件,制造了排气系统,并通过屋顶的管道抽出热空气。很快,温度便下降到了70华氏度(约21.11摄氏度)。在格鲁吉亚的第比利斯召开的比特币大会上,塞里奥特和阿什顿在酒吧中遇到了一个人,他对他们所描述的这个奇妙装置非常感兴趣,并将其介绍给了来自于日本大型财团的代表,哈里斯拒绝透露其名字。当时,这家公司希望将挖矿业务扩张至美国。无独有偶,哈里斯笨重的塔式货架成为了其公司的卖点。

三周之后,来自日本公司的15名经理突然到访了这个团队在新奥尔良自建的比特币农场。哈里斯回忆说:“他们说:‘我们到访了11个国家,而这是目前为止我们看到的矿机散热的最佳解决方案。’”哈里斯称,这家日本公司认为,这些人受困于“原始的企业构架”,却因为“极富创造力”而弥补了这个缺陷。哈里斯叫来了他的大儿子艾登。艾登当时还在攻读位于波士顿的美国东北大学(Northeastern University)的会计专业硕士学位。艾登当天就飞到了新奥尔良,并迅速拿出了一个商业计划,交给了日本客户,收获就是这个团队支付其学生债。2018年11月中旬,哈里斯团队达成了交易,为这家日本公司在美国的首个比特币挖矿业务提供仓库、电力和服务。

哈里斯及其客户制定了庞大的计划,而且挖矿机迅速增至6000台。然而,该项目成为了一场灾难。新奥尔良的电力成本约为每度电5.6美分,按照美国标准来说并不算过高,但要比中国、伊朗和得州等矿场集中地贵得多。哈里斯说:“电费太贵了,尤其是比特币在2019年2月暴跌至3500美元的时候。挖矿在新奥尔良并不受欢迎,而且税收也高,同时劳动力也不理想。”当时,第四位人士大卫·沙茨加入了哈里斯父子与塞里奥特团队。大卫来自于新奥尔良,是前铁路柴油机械师,如今是Whinstone的运营负责人。在2019年年初,哈里斯的合作伙伴将目光投向了得州,来寻找新奥尔良缺失的要素:超便宜的电力、低税收,以及大量踌躇满志、与他们一样对这个行业充满了期待的行业员工。

比特币的沃土——得克萨斯州

哈里斯最初的想法是重新修建一处设施,这样,他便能够承接日本客户和其他第三方的业务。他们希望收购HODL Ranch的场地,该公司位于派奥特,而且电力直接入户。为了搞定融资,这支团队聘请了一名筹款人。然而,该交易未能成功,因为他们输给了竞标对手。7月初,也就是HODL交易失败的三天之后,哈里斯在《连线》(Wired)杂志中读到了一篇故事《倒霉得州城镇,押注比特币却以失败告终》(The Hard-Luck Texas Town That Bet on Bitcoin—and Lost),讲述的是罗克代尔市的痛苦。他发现,比特大陆公司在老旧的美国铝业公司工厂的产能提升并没有像预期的那么快,这家公司可能会把多出的厂房租给他,然后用于承接矿主。

两周后,哈里斯来到了罗克代尔。他回忆说:“我们来到了市政大厅,参加了在那的一个会议。在会上,罗克代尔的市民大肆讨论着对减速带的需求。从这次大会,我们意识到,这个城镇需要振兴。”与比特大陆的接洽也并不顺利。9月,哈里斯未能就租赁厂房一事与对方达成一致意见,而且对租赁这个想法产生了怀疑,因为美国铝业公司的老旧厂房缺乏可以存放塔式电脑搁架的大开间。日本客户只给了他7天的时间寻找另一个场所,否则将终止其向哈里斯承诺的承接合约。这位新奥尔良市的赌徒如今加大了其赌注,不再考虑从比特大陆那里租赁厂房。哈里斯的目标:40多公顷的空旷森林,就在比特大陆矿场不远处。如今,哈里斯打算从零开始建造一所巨型设施,当时,比特币的价格低的吓人,即便是比特大陆这位巨头也有所收敛。

长条形厂房鸟瞰图。Whinstone是北美最大的比特币挖矿设施。图片来源:Mark Felix—AFP/Getty Images

为了从美国铝业(自那之后被出售给一位投资者)手中拿到这片空地的租赁权,哈里斯开始了谈判。他说:“他们想要一个获穆迪(Moody’s)评级的担保方,100万美元的押金,以及按每年100万美元的价格提前预付三年的租金。整个团队总共只有100万美元,而且还是以比特币的方式持有,这笔钱本来是用作项目的起始资金。因此,我们没有钱去担保,也就是拿不出那400万美元,但我们说自己有钱。我的态度是先同意所有条件,然后再拿钱。只要我们同意一切条件,而且他们也同意,那么我们就知道接下来应该做什么。如果我们失败了,那就什么都没有了。日本客户依然十分迫切地想在得州寻找承接之地,因此为我们提供了担保,并签署了一项十年期租赁合约来支持公司。”

哈里斯在11月初破土动工。这个活动被永恒地收录在了一张照片中:哈里斯团队故意露出了诡异的笑容,其中还有满载的铲车。当时,阿什顿的蓝色假发不见了。然而,这些创始人拿不出实现其宏大愿景所需的足够资金。哈里斯回忆说:“我们迫切需要现金。”该项目成本预计约为1.5亿美元,但比特币价格的暴跌打消了投资者支持该项目的念头。在哈里斯开工的当天,比特币的价格仅为4100美元,而2018年年初为1.5万美元。在奠基仪式两周后,也就是2019年11月中旬,该团队同意以1.64亿美元的价格,通过全股份交易的形式,在2020年2月底将Whinstone出售给Northern Data。Northern Data意识到,这些新奥尔良创始人对于打造这个宏伟项目来说是不可或缺的,因此保留了整个团队。当比特币的价格再度飙升时,这位新所有者可谓是赚的盆满钵满。2021年4月,比特币的价格突破了6万美元大关,Riot从Northern Data手中收购了Whinstone,出价比Northern Data当初的收购价高出数倍。

居住环境十分简陋。哈里斯回忆说:“我与其他两个人住在畜棚的楼上,只有一个洗手间。我说的是真正的畜棚,不是Instagram上那种连奶牛都如此完美的畜棚。我在新奥尔良的住所很不错,差不多1000平米,每天都可以看到我的邻居。在罗克代尔的畜棚中,我每六个月才能够见到我的邻居。”哈里斯称,他在过去三年中与日本高管举行了700次电话会议,都是在晚上11点至12点开始,而且经常会持续至凌晨。“然后我只能在办公室的地板上睡几个小时,差不多早上6点就得爬起来继续工作,订购供应物资,随后忙碌一整天,在下午5点打个盹,晚上继续接听日本的电话。”

在新冠疫情期间快速建造,同时还要干仓库里的活,并帮助供应商

哈里斯部署了两项策略,帮助他规避了2020年3月新冠疫情爆发后迫使众多大型基础设施项目放缓进程的各种混乱因素。第一个策略是使用其自有的电气技师、工程师和其他工人来组装设备,并执行通常被外包给第三方的复杂任务。Whinstone手工制作了其自用的“内部连接”,这是一套银色的线缆网络,用于连接其设施外的13.8万伏电网和自身的变电站,而变电站也是由哈里斯的雇员和承包商在现场组装。他说:“买一套需要16个月至18个月才可以到货,因此我们购买了所有的部件,并在几个月之内组装好了一台。”

2021年10月,工人们正在安装一排新的比特币矿机。图片来源:Mark Felix—AFP/Getty Images

第二项策略就是尽可能地减轻供应商的压力。哈里斯说:“其中的一点就是,如果订单量大的话要提前预订。当我们一开始建造时,我预订了美国所有能够买到的4英寸(10.16厘米)直径的橙色线管,也就是埋在地下用于走线的线管。”Whinstone的7栋建筑每一栋都有35个至50个变压器,用于将变电站的大电流降至可以供计算机使用的合适电流。“在我们从美国铝业公司那里拿到租赁合同之前,我便在2019年8月预订了大量的线管。真的是一场豪赌!但确实管用。”他还因为按时甚至提前支付供应商款项而成为了名人。他表示:“我们得确保,供应商无需自掏腰包来支持我们的项目。我们会为其购买原材料,而这一直以来都得他们自己购买。因此,他们唯一的费用就是劳动力和经营性费用。我们最伟大的技能就是尽快地把钱送到承包商的手中。而抱有这种想法的项目经理并不多见。”对哈里斯来说,此举的回报就是,在新冠疫情短缺期间,忠诚的供应商倾向于首先满足Whinstone的订单,公司如今依然受益于这一待遇。

冷却技术是提升ASIC矿机生产力和寿命的一个重要环节,因为这些机器基本上都在全天候运行,生成比特币挖矿代码。作为业界的先驱,Whinstone是全球首家部署突破性工业规模“沉浸式冷却”挖矿技术的公司。该流程是对标准风冷的重大改善。矿机被放置于一种特殊的“非传导性”油基液体中,并通过液体的循环来保持计算机集成电路在较低的温度运行。这种液体能够吸收来自于机器的热量。在一个持续的循环中,吸热后的液体被抽入热交换器,进行冷却,然后再回流至沉浸箱内和集成电路周围。在Whinstone的400兆瓦的扩张项目中,有200兆瓦将使用沉浸式冷却技术,而该扩张项目将让Whinstone在年底的容量达到700兆瓦。哈里斯说:“它对矿机的温控效果要比风冷好得多。”

该技术拥有两个优势。第一,它可以延长计算机的寿命。哈里斯说:“计算机以前的寿命是三年,现在能够延长至五年。计算机的折旧时间变得更长,这样资本成本就会更低。”第二,对于同样的ASIC矿机,这个流程可以大幅提升哈希率。在10月的新闻稿中,Riot称其自己的测试结果和行业数据显示,每秒的哈希率提升了25%,而潜在的增幅能够高达50%。此外,用哈里斯的话说,这些矿机在运行时一片“死寂”,而不是以往巨大的嗡鸣声。所有的箱体与桌子高度相当,并非放在高高的塔式货架上,因此提升了机器维修的便利性。沉浸式冷却技术所提供的额外效率有望让Whinstone的比特币产量占到全球总产量的10%。

与此同时,哈里斯已经变得十分热爱罗克代尔的生活。他甚至说服了一位满脸皱纹的餐厅老板在其汉堡中使用真正的碎牛肉,并给它们披上了新奥尔良式的华丽外衣。在从事了一整天计算机安装或订购变压器的工作之后,他会在夜间骑上自己的公路探险自行车,后面跟着一辆汽车,用来照亮前方崎岖的道路。令他感到异常高兴的是,布雷特·博伦正在竞选市长,而布雷特是他最喜爱餐厅Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que的老板。哈里斯说:“布雷特跟我一样,是那种喜欢孤注一掷的人。”罗克代尔如今跟他一样处于上升期,他对此也是称赞不已。他说,比特币为该镇带来了每月25%的税收增幅,并为棒球场带来了安装新照明灯的资金。

我问哈里斯,作为一名前景观设计师,你砍掉了一整片森林,并开辟出了供Whinstone修建七栋建筑的场地,对此你有何感想。他回答说,他已经在使用其老技能来召唤自然,以装点和美化这个场地。他说:“在我完成之后,它看起来更像是一个植物花园。我们已经种植了约300棵树。我在土壤中埋入了有机质,并铺设了灌溉管线。我们将种植冬青和观花用的紫薇。”这位来自新奥尔良的难民也让比特币在这里扎下了根,而且其规模可能在全球居于首位。不过,这个此前他或许认为最不可能的地方,竟然变成了其逐梦之地。(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

在2019年7月闷热的一天,查德·埃弗里特·哈里斯首次来到了美国得克萨斯州的小镇罗克代尔。此时,这个城镇与他本人一样,都倒霉到了极点。两年前,美国铝业公司(Alcoa)关闭了位于该地的全球最大铝厂,而遭受重创的经济仍然在缓慢复苏。中国的比特大陆公司也曾经拿出计划,意欲将巨型废弃铝厂改造为另一个工业奇迹——全球最大的比特币矿场。虽然在短时间里风光无限,但该计划自2018年秋季比特币(Bitcoin)的价格暴跌后便销声匿迹。据估计,该工厂共有3000名工人,其中88%失去了工作,对市政预算来说无异于当头一棒。罗克代尔位于大草原,有5900位居民,距离奥斯汀北部有一小时的车程。与该镇同样规模的飞地则鲜有这种由盛转衰的经历。

作为一位耀眼的连续创业者,哈里斯似乎坐上了一趟最为疯狂的过山车,长期以来一直大起大落。他的事业如今和罗克代尔一样急转直下。对土生土长的新奥尔良人哈里斯来说,这个位于得克萨斯州中部的偏远之所并非是东山再起的理想之地。事实上,他以前从未关注过得克萨斯州的农村地区。他对《财富》杂志说:“说到文化冲击!我住在新奥尔良的上城区,距米其林星级餐厅和世界级美食只有几个街区。当我第一天开车经过这些连绵的山丘时,我看到是各种写着‘世界上最美味的汉堡’和‘得州最好吃的汉堡’的标语牌。然而,我在吃了一口后发现,这些汉堡使用的是同一家食品服务公司制作的冷冻肉饼。”哈里斯曾经经营过一家生意不错的景观设计企业,新奥尔良的顶级高尔夫球场和大多数知名公园的植被均是这家公司的手笔。实际上,他还捣鼓出了一些让自己赚得盆满钵满的古怪玩意,例如在线销售预先装饰好的圣诞树。在出借人的巨大压力之下,他选择关闭这些业务。几个月后,他把景观公司的特许经营权免费转让给了他的高级副手。他再度复出,在新奥尔良租来的仓库里为一位日本合作伙伴的比特币挖矿提供托管服务,但进展的不顺利,因为在路易斯安那州做生意的成本,包括支付高昂的电费,使得比特币挖矿业务无利可图。

不过,哈里斯还是把罗克代尔视为他理想中的黄金之国。简而言之,他想实现世界领先的比特币挖矿设备制造商比特大陆公司,迄今为止未能实现的目标:打造一家大型比特币挖矿公司,就算做不到世界第一,也要跻身世界前列。对哈里斯来说,公司运营的成功取决于两大因素:巨大的规模和极其便宜的电力。与新奥尔良不同的是,罗克代尔在这两方面都有着充足的供应,哪怕用罗克代尔味道平平的汉堡来换取家乡的美味也值得。但哈里斯坚持认为,吸引他的不仅是丰厚的利润,还有一种不羁的自由。他说:“我把在罗克代尔开采比特币看成是一种退出策略。这个方法能够解决我的所有问题,并建立一家企业,让每个人都可以大把赚钱。我们偶然发现了一个名为比特币的产品,这种产品利润巨大,在金融方面又不受银行机构的约束。我喜欢这个理念。在罗克代尔,我又拿回了管控权。我会让人们做他们从未想过的事情,包括我自己,并借此创造奇迹。”

在不到三年的时间里,52岁、头发不多、留着山羊胡子的哈里斯把自己重新塑造成了比特币挖矿基础设施之王,并帮助小小的罗克代尔成为该行业热闹喧嚣的世界之都。迅速发展的Whinstone公司在比特币矿业中的地位,如同汽车行业中的大众公司(VW)的沃尔夫斯堡工厂和飞机行业波音公司(Boeing)的埃弗里特工厂。自从2019年11月初破土动工以来,哈里斯已经将一块占地100英亩(约404685.64平方米)、曾经属于美国铝业公司的森林用地,改造为全球最大的比特币挖矿中心(按照总“算力”衡量),距离进展缓慢的比特大陆项目并不远。该项目现已建成七个巨大的仓库,还有三个仍然在建设中,总面积相当于近10个足球场,在2022年年底完工后能够容纳12万台最先进的比特大陆蚂蚁矿机(Antminer)计算机。Whinstone US的工厂已经拥有400兆瓦的电力容量,几乎是达拉斯市中心电力需求的两倍。

然而,作为一位狂热的公路探险自行车骑手,哈里斯依然喜欢在砂石地上骑行,并踩着踏板以最高速度前进。Whinstone公司将在2022年年底前达到750兆瓦的惊人容量。届时,该矿厂所生成的代码或“哈希”,将以12.8 EH/s(即每秒10的18次方哈希)的速度来挖掘新的比特币。这意味着,哈里斯及其新奥尔良牛仔们建造这个单一工厂所提供的算力,大约将占到全球整个比特币网络算力的七分之一。单个矿厂挖掘的新比特币数量取决于其掌控的整体哈希率。这意味着在未来几年,Whinstone公司将成为全球新比特币的开采大户。在承担建设比特币帝国的新任务之后,哈里斯预测Whinstone公司最终可能会开采全球十分之一的比特币。他坦然地接受了这一成就。他说:“面对比特币4万美元的售价,任何人都想尝试进入这个行业。我们在没有人敢做的时候创建了这项业务。在我们创业之初,比特币的价格在4000美元左右,挖矿似乎蕴含着巨大风险。”

哈里斯和他的团队完成了Whinstone公司的所有设计和建造工作,目前依然掌管着这家公司。然而,他们持有该公司的时间并不长。由于缺乏Whinstone公司所需的巨额资金,他们在2019年年底将公司卖给了德国的Northern Data公司。2021年5月,位于科罗拉多州城堡石的Riot Blockchain公司以6.51亿美元的价格从Northern Data公司的手中又收购了Whinstone。如今,哈里斯担任Whinstone公司的首席执行官,Whinstone公司贡献了Riot公司大部分的收入来源,亦是其未来增长的引擎。顷刻间,对Whinstone公司的收购使Riot公司跻身顶尖比特币挖矿上市公司之列。Riot公司的算力在今年年底将达到近13 EH/s的水平,排名第三位,位列算力预计为15 EH/s的Core Scientific公司之后,距离算力13.3 EH/s的Marathon Digital公司仅有一步之遥。Riot公司的收购改变了Whinstone公司的业务模式。此前,该公司主要为第三方矿主提供服务,而这些矿主则为哈里斯团队提供的厂房租赁、电力、维护和所有其他服务支付不菲的费用。虽然Whinstone公司仍然为外部客户提供服务,但Riot公司已经将主要精力转移到为自己开采比特币之中。今年1月,Riot全公司开采了458枚比特币,价值超过2000万美元,其中绝大部分是Whinstone公司为自己开采的,而且其2022年年底的开采量有望增长一倍多。

此外,以比特币目前约4万美元的价格来看,Whinstone公司的利润非常丰厚。一个主要原因是其极低的电力成本,每度电仅为2.4美分。据《财富》杂志估计,Whinstone公司的劳动力、电力和设备的支出约为每枚比特币15000美元。B. Riley公司的分析师卢卡斯·派普斯预测,如果Whinstone公司在年底火力全开,以每枚比特币价格4万美元计算,Riot公司的销售额就将达到大约6亿美元,同时其息税折旧摊销前利润率(Ebita)将达到80%。Riot将一举成为全球排名前三位的挖矿上市公司,而且利润率亦是名列前茅。

在全球最大的比特币矿场中,Whinstone公司到底处于什么水平?毫无疑问,它在北美排名第一位。不过,它在全球的排名很难衡量,因为伊朗、哈萨克斯坦和俄罗斯等主要生产国的矿场规模信息并没有对外公布。分析师派普斯指出:“我不想贸然说Whinstone公司是最大的矿场,但我不知道还有哪家公司的容量甚至达到了Whinstone公司目前的400兆瓦,更不用说高于Whinstone公司今年的700兆瓦目标了。Whinstone公司很可能已经成为世界上最大的矿场。”

新奥尔良市极为崇尚即兴表演,是爵士乐的发源地;而在得克萨斯州,投机者孤注一掷的故事就像其土壤中的仙人掌一样根植于其文化中。哪怕是在这两个地区,哈里斯的故事依然引人入胜,因为这段异常轻松有趣的经历展现了一个人如何白手起家成为加密货币大亨。这种有着无穷能量的个性更像是一个寓意极深的故事。他对我说:“我有过令人难以置信的成功和失败。”哈里斯把自己惊人的韧劲归功于坚守自己挚爱的信条:“忧患造就强者,安乐滋生弱者,而弱者又会带来忧患。”

早期的比特币挖矿尝试

哈里斯由离异的母亲抚养长大。他的母亲也是一名果敢的企业家,其经营的会议生意经常以失败告终。他回忆说:“母亲变得异常紧张,整天忧心忡忡,她宁愿待在我们的酒店房间里。在14岁那年,我不得不前往会议厅去维持会序。”他的母亲为一个自由主义组织举办活动,该组织倡导购买黄金和白银,并对纸币价值的长久性表示怀疑;哈里斯称,该组织的理念继承者们将支持比特币。他说:“这是一个由非美元货币主导的亚文化。我的母亲会带领团队去访问南非和阿富汗的金矿。”还是青少年的他则负责将知名人物从机场接到活动现场。他说:“太不可思议了,我竟然成为了明星们的司机,其中就有亨利·基辛格和乔治·戈登·利迪等人。”哈里斯没有接受过高等教育。他说:“我在新奥尔良大学(University of New Orleans)就待过一天,然后就退学了。学校把母亲支付学费的退给了我,而我用这些钱购买了草坪修剪机。我当时实在是不好意思告诉母亲,自己在随后的两个月中一直在假装上学。”

哈里斯将其在青少年创建的事业发展成为一家大型景观公司。他回忆说:“在我们所做的一些项目中,有的得种500颗树和4万颗同一植物,并安装数英里长的灌溉管道。这对于打造Whinstone来说是一个很好的经验。”他的代表作有新奥尔良雕塑花园(New Orleans Sculpture Garden)和奥杜邦公园高尔夫球场(Audubon Park Golf Course),后者是新奥尔良市中心附近的一个公共网球场,因为其华丽的绿化而闻名。哈里斯还经营着一个家居卖场和园艺店,销售各种商品,从树苗一直到人造石种植机,再到珠宝。然而在2015年期间,哈里斯关闭了其店面并开始转战线上的独家销售业务。他在线上出售装饰齐全的圣诞树,并借此见证了互联网销售的力量。他说:“我是第一个吃螃蟹的人。我会从北卡罗来纳州购买圣诞树,然后安装手工串起来的灯泡。我会在10天内交付圣诞树,然后在圣诞节之后拿回来。有人怀疑这项业务是否可行,因为客户理应需要‘触摸和感知’圣诞树。然而在互联网时代,人们图的就是个方便。我一年可以销售2000颗提前装好灯饰的圣诞树。新奥尔良民众在1月都还保留着其圣诞树。”

尽管圣诞假期营销大获成功,但哈里斯将其实体园艺店面转换为线上平台的银行家思维,被证明是一场灾难。他表示:“我能够这样说,我与出借人没有达成一致意见。”哈里斯发现了一个可以重启其职业的新领域。在数年之前,他当时还在念9年级的小儿子阿什顿曾经使用过一种又酷又新的“数字货币”,并利用其在线上购物。哈里斯说:“是阿什顿让我认识了比特币。”

2017年,哈里斯、当时27岁的CrossFit健身房老板莱尔·塞里奥特(如今是Whinstone的首席运营官)和大一辍学的阿什顿,创建了一个小型试点项目,共计部署了300台计算机。当时,阿什顿戴着蓝色的假发。他的父亲说:“阿什顿从辍学回家之后决定,这便是他想要做的事情。”他与哈里斯一样,被创业的浪漫情怀所深深吸引。即便在冬天,这些计算机亦会让仓库的温度升到100华氏度(约37.78摄氏度),其哈希率也会受到影响。为了降低温度,这支团队打造了一个20英尺(约6.1米)多高的长方形木盒,来放置一个机架的计算机。他们还使用从家得宝(Home Depot)购买的部件,制造了排气系统,并通过屋顶的管道抽出热空气。很快,温度便下降到了70华氏度(约21.11摄氏度)。在格鲁吉亚的第比利斯召开的比特币大会上,塞里奥特和阿什顿在酒吧中遇到了一个人,他对他们所描述的这个奇妙装置非常感兴趣,并将其介绍给了来自于日本大型财团的代表,哈里斯拒绝透露其名字。当时,这家公司希望将挖矿业务扩张至美国。无独有偶,哈里斯笨重的塔式货架成为了其公司的卖点。

三周之后,来自日本公司的15名经理突然到访了这个团队在新奥尔良自建的比特币农场。哈里斯回忆说:“他们说:‘我们到访了11个国家,而这是目前为止我们看到的矿机散热的最佳解决方案。’”哈里斯称,这家日本公司认为,这些人受困于“原始的企业构架”,却因为“极富创造力”而弥补了这个缺陷。哈里斯叫来了他的大儿子艾登。艾登当时还在攻读位于波士顿的美国东北大学(Northeastern University)的会计专业硕士学位。艾登当天就飞到了新奥尔良,并迅速拿出了一个商业计划,交给了日本客户,收获就是这个团队支付其学生债。2018年11月中旬,哈里斯团队达成了交易,为这家日本公司在美国的首个比特币挖矿业务提供仓库、电力和服务。

哈里斯及其客户制定了庞大的计划,而且挖矿机迅速增至6000台。然而,该项目成为了一场灾难。新奥尔良的电力成本约为每度电5.6美分,按照美国标准来说并不算过高,但要比中国、伊朗和得州等矿场集中地贵得多。哈里斯说:“电费太贵了,尤其是比特币在2019年2月暴跌至3500美元的时候。挖矿在新奥尔良并不受欢迎,而且税收也高,同时劳动力也不理想。”当时,第四位人士大卫·沙茨加入了哈里斯父子与塞里奥特团队。大卫来自于新奥尔良,是前铁路柴油机械师,如今是Whinstone的运营负责人。在2019年年初,哈里斯的合作伙伴将目光投向了得州,来寻找新奥尔良缺失的要素:超便宜的电力、低税收,以及大量踌躇满志、与他们一样对这个行业充满了期待的行业员工。

比特币的沃土——得克萨斯州

哈里斯最初的想法是重新修建一处设施,这样,他便能够承接日本客户和其他第三方的业务。他们希望收购HODL Ranch的场地,该公司位于派奥特,而且电力直接入户。为了搞定融资,这支团队聘请了一名筹款人。然而,该交易未能成功,因为他们输给了竞标对手。7月初,也就是HODL交易失败的三天之后,哈里斯在《连线》(Wired)杂志中读到了一篇故事《倒霉得州城镇,押注比特币却以失败告终》(The Hard-Luck Texas Town That Bet on Bitcoin—and Lost),讲述的是罗克代尔市的痛苦。他发现,比特大陆公司在老旧的美国铝业公司工厂的产能提升并没有像预期的那么快,这家公司可能会把多出的厂房租给他,然后用于承接矿主。

两周后,哈里斯来到了罗克代尔。他回忆说:“我们来到了市政大厅,参加了在那的一个会议。在会上,罗克代尔的市民大肆讨论着对减速带的需求。从这次大会,我们意识到,这个城镇需要振兴。”与比特大陆的接洽也并不顺利。9月,哈里斯未能就租赁厂房一事与对方达成一致意见,而且对租赁这个想法产生了怀疑,因为美国铝业公司的老旧厂房缺乏可以存放塔式电脑搁架的大开间。日本客户只给了他7天的时间寻找另一个场所,否则将终止其向哈里斯承诺的承接合约。这位新奥尔良市的赌徒如今加大了其赌注,不再考虑从比特大陆那里租赁厂房。哈里斯的目标:40多公顷的空旷森林,就在比特大陆矿场不远处。如今,哈里斯打算从零开始建造一所巨型设施,当时,比特币的价格低的吓人,即便是比特大陆这位巨头也有所收敛。

为了从美国铝业(自那之后被出售给一位投资者)手中拿到这片空地的租赁权,哈里斯开始了谈判。他说:“他们想要一个获穆迪(Moody’s)评级的担保方,100万美元的押金,以及按每年100万美元的价格提前预付三年的租金。整个团队总共只有100万美元,而且还是以比特币的方式持有,这笔钱本来是用作项目的起始资金。因此,我们没有钱去担保,也就是拿不出那400万美元,但我们说自己有钱。我的态度是先同意所有条件,然后再拿钱。只要我们同意一切条件,而且他们也同意,那么我们就知道接下来应该做什么。如果我们失败了,那就什么都没有了。日本客户依然十分迫切地想在得州寻找承接之地,因此为我们提供了担保,并签署了一项十年期租赁合约来支持公司。”

哈里斯在11月初破土动工。这个活动被永恒地收录在了一张照片中:哈里斯团队故意露出了诡异的笑容,其中还有满载的铲车。当时,阿什顿的蓝色假发不见了。然而,这些创始人拿不出实现其宏大愿景所需的足够资金。哈里斯回忆说:“我们迫切需要现金。”该项目成本预计约为1.5亿美元,但比特币价格的暴跌打消了投资者支持该项目的念头。在哈里斯开工的当天,比特币的价格仅为4100美元,而2018年年初为1.5万美元。在奠基仪式两周后,也就是2019年11月中旬,该团队同意以1.64亿美元的价格,通过全股份交易的形式,在2020年2月底将Whinstone出售给Northern Data。Northern Data意识到,这些新奥尔良创始人对于打造这个宏伟项目来说是不可或缺的,因此保留了整个团队。当比特币的价格再度飙升时,这位新所有者可谓是赚的盆满钵满。2021年4月,比特币的价格突破了6万美元大关,Riot从Northern Data手中收购了Whinstone,出价比Northern Data当初的收购价高出数倍。

居住环境十分简陋。哈里斯回忆说:“我与其他两个人住在畜棚的楼上,只有一个洗手间。我说的是真正的畜棚,不是Instagram上那种连奶牛都如此完美的畜棚。我在新奥尔良的住所很不错,差不多1000平米,每天都可以看到我的邻居。在罗克代尔的畜棚中,我每六个月才能够见到我的邻居。”哈里斯称,他在过去三年中与日本高管举行了700次电话会议,都是在晚上11点至12点开始,而且经常会持续至凌晨。“然后我只能在办公室的地板上睡几个小时,差不多早上6点就得爬起来继续工作,订购供应物资,随后忙碌一整天,在下午5点打个盹,晚上继续接听日本的电话。”

在新冠疫情期间快速建造,同时还要干仓库里的活,并帮助供应商

哈里斯部署了两项策略,帮助他规避了2020年3月新冠疫情爆发后迫使众多大型基础设施项目放缓进程的各种混乱因素。第一个策略是使用其自有的电气技师、工程师和其他工人来组装设备,并执行通常被外包给第三方的复杂任务。Whinstone手工制作了其自用的“内部连接”,这是一套银色的线缆网络,用于连接其设施外的13.8万伏电网和自身的变电站,而变电站也是由哈里斯的雇员和承包商在现场组装。他说:“买一套需要16个月至18个月才可以到货,因此我们购买了所有的部件,并在几个月之内组装好了一台。”

第二项策略就是尽可能地减轻供应商的压力。哈里斯说:“其中的一点就是,如果订单量大的话要提前预订。当我们一开始建造时,我预订了美国所有能够买到的4英寸(10.16厘米)直径的橙色线管,也就是埋在地下用于走线的线管。”Whinstone的7栋建筑每一栋都有35个至50个变压器,用于将变电站的大电流降至可以供计算机使用的合适电流。“在我们从美国铝业公司那里拿到租赁合同之前,我便在2019年8月预订了大量的线管。真的是一场豪赌!但确实管用。”他还因为按时甚至提前支付供应商款项而成为了名人。他表示:“我们得确保,供应商无需自掏腰包来支持我们的项目。我们会为其购买原材料,而这一直以来都得他们自己购买。因此,他们唯一的费用就是劳动力和经营性费用。我们最伟大的技能就是尽快地把钱送到承包商的手中。而抱有这种想法的项目经理并不多见。”对哈里斯来说,此举的回报就是,在新冠疫情短缺期间,忠诚的供应商倾向于首先满足Whinstone的订单,公司如今依然受益于这一待遇。

冷却技术是提升ASIC矿机生产力和寿命的一个重要环节,因为这些机器基本上都在全天候运行,生成比特币挖矿代码。作为业界的先驱,Whinstone是全球首家部署突破性工业规模“沉浸式冷却”挖矿技术的公司。该流程是对标准风冷的重大改善。矿机被放置于一种特殊的“非传导性”油基液体中,并通过液体的循环来保持计算机集成电路在较低的温度运行。这种液体能够吸收来自于机器的热量。在一个持续的循环中,吸热后的液体被抽入热交换器,进行冷却,然后再回流至沉浸箱内和集成电路周围。在Whinstone的400兆瓦的扩张项目中,有200兆瓦将使用沉浸式冷却技术,而该扩张项目将让Whinstone在年底的容量达到700兆瓦。哈里斯说:“它对矿机的温控效果要比风冷好得多。”

该技术拥有两个优势。第一,它可以延长计算机的寿命。哈里斯说:“计算机以前的寿命是三年,现在能够延长至五年。计算机的折旧时间变得更长,这样资本成本就会更低。”第二,对于同样的ASIC矿机,这个流程可以大幅提升哈希率。在10月的新闻稿中,Riot称其自己的测试结果和行业数据显示,每秒的哈希率提升了25%,而潜在的增幅能够高达50%。此外,用哈里斯的话说,这些矿机在运行时一片“死寂”,而不是以往巨大的嗡鸣声。所有的箱体与桌子高度相当,并非放在高高的塔式货架上,因此提升了机器维修的便利性。沉浸式冷却技术所提供的额外效率有望让Whinstone的比特币产量占到全球总产量的10%。

与此同时,哈里斯已经变得十分热爱罗克代尔的生活。他甚至说服了一位满脸皱纹的餐厅老板在其汉堡中使用真正的碎牛肉,并给它们披上了新奥尔良式的华丽外衣。在从事了一整天计算机安装或订购变压器的工作之后,他会在夜间骑上自己的公路探险自行车,后面跟着一辆汽车,用来照亮前方崎岖的道路。令他感到异常高兴的是,布雷特·博伦正在竞选市长,而布雷特是他最喜爱餐厅Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que的老板。哈里斯说:“布雷特跟我一样,是那种喜欢孤注一掷的人。”罗克代尔如今跟他一样处于上升期,他对此也是称赞不已。他说,比特币为该镇带来了每月25%的税收增幅,并为棒球场带来了安装新照明灯的资金。

我问哈里斯,作为一名前景观设计师,你砍掉了一整片森林,并开辟出了供Whinstone修建七栋建筑的场地,对此你有何感想。他回答说,他已经在使用其老技能来召唤自然,以装点和美化这个场地。他说:“在我完成之后,它看起来更像是一个植物花园。我们已经种植了约300棵树。我在土壤中埋入了有机质,并铺设了灌溉管线。我们将种植冬青和观花用的紫薇。”这位来自新奥尔良的难民也让比特币在这里扎下了根,而且其规模可能在全球居于首位。不过,这个此前他或许认为最不可能的地方,竟然变成了其逐梦之地。(财富中文网)

译者:冯丰

审校:夏林

When Chad Everett Harris first set foot in the tiny hamlet of Rockdale, Texas, on a sweltering day in July of 2019, both the town and the man were the hardest of hard-luck cases. Rockdale’s economy was still reeling from a shock two years earlier when Alcoa shuttered what was once the world’s largest aluminum plant. And a plan by China’s Bitmain to repurpose the gigantic ex-smelter as another industrial superlative––the world’s largest Bitcoin mine––had briefly flourished then foundered after the signature cryptocurrency’s price collapsed in the fall of 2018. An estimated 88% of the facility’s 3,000 workers lost their jobs, pounding the municipal budget. Few enclaves its size had ever seen the kind of swing from boomtown to has-been experienced by the prairie community of 5,900, an hour’s drive north of Austin.

As for Harris, the flamboyant serial entrepreneur had long careened from coups to flops on the wildest of roller-coaster rides, and his steep slide now mirrored Rockdale’s. The mid-Texas outpost was an odd place for New Orleans native Harris to be seeking financial redemption. In fact, he’d never before set eyes on the rural stretches of the Lone Star State. “Talk about culture shock!” he tells Fortune. “I’m living in uptown New Orleans, blocks from Michelin-rated restaurants and the best food in the world, and I drive through these rolling hills that first day and keep seeing signs, ‘World’s Best Burger,’ and ‘Best Burger in Texas,’ and when I bite in, it’s the same frozen patty from a food services company.” Harris had once thrived running a landscaping venture that planted New Orleans’s top golf courses and most prominent parks, and cleaned up at an oddball field he virtually invented, selling pre-decorated Christmas trees online. Under severe pressure from his lenders, he chose to close the businesses. Within months, he’d turn the keys to his landscaping franchise over to his top lieutenant for nothing. A comeback bid hosting Bitcoin mining for a Japanese partner in rented New Orleans warehouses was going poorly, since the economics of doing business in Louisiana, including high energy costs, made it unprofitable to mine Bitcoin.

Still, Harris saw Rockdale as his El Dorado. Put simply, he wanted to achieve what Bitmain, a powerhouse as the world’s leading manufacturer of Bitcoin mining equipment, was so far failing to accomplish: building one of the world’s biggest Bitcoin mining operations, if not the biggest. For Harris, a successful operation was all about two things, giant scale and supercheap electricity. And unlike New Orleans, Rockdale offered both in such ample supply that he’d trade his hometown’s gourmet burgers for Rockdale’s not-so-specials. (You can read more about the burgeoning business of mining Bitcoin in Texas here.) But Harris swears that the appeal was swashbuckling freedom as much as rich profits. “I looked at mining Bitcoin in Rockdale as an exit strategy,” he says. “It was a way to solve all my problems and build a business and make everyone a ton of money. We stumbled onto a product called Bitcoin that was profitable and created financial freedom from banking institutions. I loved the idea. In Rockdale, I’d be in control again. I’d work a miracle by getting people to do stuff they never thought they could do, including myself.”

In under three years, the bald, goateed Harris, 52, has reinvented himself as what might be called the king of Bitcoin mining infrastructure, and helped make little Rockdale the industry’s buzzing world capital. Whinstone has mushroomed to become for Bitcoin mining what VW’s Wolfsburg plant and Boeing’s Everett factory are to cars and airplanes. Since breaking ground in early November of 2019, Harris has transformed a 100-acre forest site once owned by Alcoa, just down the road from the slower moving Bitmain project, into one of the world’s biggest Bitcoin mining centers, measured by total “metered capacity.” The project now hosts seven gigantic warehouses, three still under construction, covering the equivalent of almost 10 football fields that, when completed by the close of 2022, will house 120,000 state-of-the-art Bitmain Antminer computers. The Whinstone US plant already harbors 400 megawatts in electrical capacity; that’s almost twice the juice powering downtown Dallas.

But Harris, an avid gravel biker, is still churning gravel as he pedals toward top speed. Whinstone should reach a staggering capacity of 750 MW by the close of 2022. By then, the mine will be generating the codes or “hashes” that win new Bitcoin awards at the rate of 12.8 exahashes per second or EH/s (an exahash equals 1 quintillion hashes, one to the 18th power). That’s about one-seventh of the computing power of the entire global Bitcoin network at a single plant built by Harris and his New Orleans cowboys. And it’s the portion of the overall hashrate a miner controls that determines the portion of newly minted Bitcoin it receives, meaning that Whinstone will mint a big share of the world’s coins in the years ahead. In his new role as empire builder, Harris predicts that Whinstone could eventually be mining one in 10 of the world’s Bitcoin. He’s justly immodest about the accomplishment. “Anybody would want to try this with Bitcoin selling at $40,000,” he says. “But we were the ones who did it when no one dared. We started when Bitcoin was selling at around $4,000 and mining looked like a huge risk.”

Harris and his team did all the work designing and building Whinstone, and are still in charge. But they owned the project only briefly. Lacking the gigantic capital Whinstone required, they sold to Northern Data of Germany in late 2019, and last May, Riot Blockchain of Castle Rock, Colo., paid Northern Data $651 million to become the new proprietor. Harris now serves as CEO of the Whinstone venture, which constitutes most of Riot’s current revenues and is its future growth machine. In a single stroke, the Whinstone purchase catapulted Riot into the top ranks of all publicly traded Bitcoin miners. At almost 13 EH/s by year-end, Riot should rank third in computing power behind Core Scientific, projected at 15 EH/s, and a hair short of Marathon Digital at an estimated 13.3 EH/s. The Riot acquisition changed Whinstone’s business model. Previously, the facility mainly housed third-party miners, who pay handsomely for the Harris team to provide housing, electricity, maintenance, and all other services. While Whinstone still serves outside customers, Riot has shifted the main focus to generating Bitcoin for its own account. In January, Riot companywide mined 458 Bitcoin valued at over $20 million, the vast bulk at Whinstone, and it’s on track to more than double that output by late 2022.

It also appears that at Bitcoin’s current price of around $40,000, Whinstone is extremely lucrative. A major reason is its ultralow electricity costs of 2.4 cents per kWh. By Fortune’s estimate, its expense of labor, electricity, and equipment is around $15,000 per coin. Analyst Lucas Pipes of B. Riley predicts that by late this year when Whinstone is fully up and running, Riot will be generating 80% Ebita margins on sales of around $600 million at a price of $40,000 per coin, making it one of the world’s three biggest publicly traded miners, and among the most profitable.

Where does Whinstone rank among largest Bitcoin mining sites around the globe? It’s unquestionably first in North America. But its global position is hard to gauge since information on the scale of facilities in such nations as Iran, Kazakhstan, and Russia, all major producers, isn’t publicly available. “I wouldn’t want to die on the hill saying it’s the biggest,” notes analyst Pipes. “But I don't know of any others that are even at their current 400 megawatts, let alone higher than their 700 MW goal for this year. Whinstone could well be the world’s largest.”

Even for New Orleans, a town that relishes wild improvisation as the birthplace of jazz, and Texas, where the lore of bet-the-ranch wildcatters is as rooted in its culture as the cactus in its soil, Harris’s story stands tall for sheer rollicking, rags-to-riches crypto-jackpot adventure. For this multi-megawatt personality, it’s something of a moral tale. “I’ve had incredible successes and failures,” he tells me. He attributes his amazing ability to keep bouncing back to his favorite credo: “Hard times create strong men. Good times create weak men. And weak men create hard times.”

An early Bitcoin mining foray

Harris was raised by his divorced mother, also a daring entrepreneur whose business of running conventions often met with failure. “She’d get so nervous and sick to her stomach she’d stay in our hotel room, and at age 14 I’d have to go down on the convention floor and bark orders,” he recalls. His mom ran events for a libertarian organization that advocated buying gold and silver, and doubted that paper money would hold its value; Harris says its philosophical heirs are backing Bitcoin. “It was a subculture of non-dollar currency,” he says. “My mom would take groups to visit gold mines in South Africa and Afghanistan.” As a teenager, he’d drive marquee names from the airport to the events. “It was wild,” he says. “I was chauffeuring celebrities from Henry Kissinger to G. Gordon Liddy.” Higher education wasn’t for Harris. “I spent one day at the University of New Orleans, then dropped out,” he says. “I got a refund on what my mother paid and used it all to buy lawn-mowing equipment. I was so ashamed to tell her that I pretended to go to college for two months.”

Harris built his teenage venture into a large landscaping business. “We’d do projects where we’d plant 500 trees and 40,000 of one type of plants, and install miles of irrigation pipe,” he recalls. “It was great training for building Whinstone.” Among his successes were the New Orleans Sculpture Garden and Audubon Park Golf Course, a public course near downtown New Orleans renowned for its sumptuous greenery. He also operated a home and garden store that sold a variety of items, from saplings to cast stone planters to jewelry. But around 2015, Harris closed the store and started selling exclusively online. He’d already witnessed the power of internet sales by establishing a sideline that marketed those fully appointed Christmas trees online. “I was the one of the first to do it. I’d buy the trees from North Carolina and install hand-strung lights,” he says. “I’d deliver the trees within 10 days, and pick them up after Christmas. People doubted it would work, because customers supposedly needed to ‘touch and feel’ the trees. But in the internet age, what they wanted most was convenience. I was selling 2,000 pre-lit trees a year. New Orleans folks were reserving their trees in January.”

Despite the coup in yuletide marketing, Harris’s bankers thought switching his brick-and-mortar garden store to an online platform would prove a disaster. “Let’s say I didn’t see eye to eye with my lenders,” he notes. Harris found a new field that could restart his career. Years earlier, his younger son Ashton, then in the ninth grade, was using a new, cool new “digital currency” to buy stuff online. “Ashton introduced me to Bitcoin,” says Harris.

In 2017, Harris, Lyle Theriot, a then 27-year-old CrossFit gym owner who’s now Whinstone’s COO, and Ashton, who’d left college as a freshman, built a tiny pilot project deploying 300 computers. At the time, Ashton sported blue hair. “Ashton came home from college and decided this is what he wanted to do,” says his dad. He was just as enthralled by the romance of entrepreneurship as Harris. Even in winter, the computers heated the warehouse to over 100 degrees, slowing their hashrate. To lower the temperature, the team built a 20-foot-tall rectangular wooden box to contain a rack of computers, and devised an exhaust system, using parts bought at Home Depot, to pump the hot air through ducts in the roof. Suddenly, the thermometer dropped into the 70s. At a Bitcoin conference in Tbilisi, Georgia, Theriot and Ashton met someone in a bar who became fascinated by their description of the contraption, and showed it to reps from a big Japanese conglomerate Harris declines to name. At the time, the company wanted to expand into Bitcoin mining in the United States. Of all things, Harris’s unwieldy tower would spearhead the company’s campaign.

Three weeks later, a retinue of 15 managers from Japanese company swooped down on the team’s homegrown Bitcoin farm in New Orleans. “They said, ‘We’ve been to 11 countries, and this is by far the best solution we’ve seen to expelling hot air from miners,’” recalls Harris. According to Harris, the Japanese company reckoned that these guys were handicapped by “a primitive corporate structure” but redeemed themselves by being “as inventive as hell.” Harris summoned his older son, Aiden, then an accounting MSA student at Northeastern University in Boston. Aiden flew to New Orleans that very day and quickly assembled a business plan for the Japanese client––in exchange for the team to pay off his student loans. In mid-November of 2018, the Harris team clinched a deal to provide the warehousing, power, and services for the Japanese company’s first Bitcoin mining operation in the U.S.

Harris and his client had big plans, quickly ramping to 6,000 machines. But the project was a disaster. The cost of electricity in New Orleans was around 5.6 cents per kilowatt-hour, not excessive by national standards but much higher than the rates where miners mostly operated, from China to Iran to Texas. “Power was just too expensive, especially when the price of Bitcoin dropped sharply $3,500 by February of 2019,” notes Harris. “Mining in New Orleans wasn’t business friendly or tax friendly, and the workforce wasn’t the best.” By this time, a fourth New Orleans buccaneer had joined the team of Harris père et fils and Theriot—David Schatz, a former railroad diesel mechanic who now heads operations at Whinstone. In early 2019, the Harris partners looked to Texas for the essentials missing in New Orleans: supercheap electricity, as well as low taxes, and a posse of super-motivated on-the-job longhorns who shared their thirst for adventure.

Texas as Bitcoin’s prairie promised land

The original idea was to build a facility from scratch where Harris would host the Japanese client and other third parties. The team wanted to acquire the HODL Ranch location, which had power to the site, in Pyote, west of Midland. To secure the financing, the group hired a fundraiser. The deal, however, collapsed when a competing bidder snatched the prize. In early July, three days after the HODL foray failed, Harris read a story in Wired called “The Hard-Luck Texas Town That Bet on Bitcoin—and Lost,” about Rockdale’s travails. He figured that since Bitmain hadn’t increased production at the old Alcoa plant nearly as fast as expected, it might lease him excess space for hosting miners.

Two weeks later, Harris hit the ground in Rockdale. “Our guys went to a town hall meeting where the Rockdale folks talked a lot about the need for speed bumps,” he recalls. “From that meeting, we realized that the town needed revitalization.” Relations wouldn’t go as well with Bitmain. By September, Harris hadn’t been able to secure an agreement to rent space, and wasn’t sure he wanted to, since Alcoa’s old buildings lacked the open spans ideal for housing towering racks of computers. The Japanese client gave him exactly seven days to find another venue, or it would end its pledge to contract with Harris for hosting. Instead of aiming to lease from Bitmain, the Crescent City gambler now raised his bet. Harris’s target: The empty, 100-acre forest down the street from the Bitmain farm. Now, Harris aimed to build his own giant facility from scratch, at a time when Bitcoin’s price was so low that that even giant Bitmain was retreating.

Harris started negotiations to rent the vacant land from Alcoa (it’s since been sold to an investor). “They wanted a Moody’s-rated guarantor, a $1 million deposit, and three years of $1 million a year in rent paid in advance,” he says. “All the team had [was] a million dollars in Bitcoin that we wanted to use to start the project. So we didn’t have the guarantee or the $4 million. But we said we did. My attitude was agree with everything and get the money later. As long as we were saying yes to everything, they were saying yes, too, and we knew what we had to do. If we failed, we’d have zero.” Still anxious to secure hosting in Texas, the Japanese client provided guarantee and the support to clinch a 10-year lease.

Harris broke ground in early November, an event immortalized in a photo of the Harris team sporting wacky grins and loaded shovels. By then, Ashton’s blue hair was gone. But the founders lacked the cash to realize their giant vision. “We were in desperate need of money,” recalls Harris. A plunge in Bitcoin’s price discouraged investors from backing the project, estimated to cost $150 million. The day Harris started construction, coins were selling at just $4,100, versus $15,000 in early 2018. Two weeks after the groundbreaking ceremony, in mid-November of 2019, the team agreed to sell Whinstone to Northern Data in an all-stock deal that, by the closing in February of 2020, was worth $164 million. Northern Data recognized that the New Orleans founders were as essential as steel and transformers to building the giant project, and left the full team in place. The new owner enjoyed a huge windfall when Bitcoin prices soared. In early April of 2021, with Bitcoin cresting at over $60,000, Riot agreed to buy Whinstone for multiples of what Northern Data had paid.

Living conditions were spare. “I lived in a barn on one floor with two other guys, with one bathroom. I’m talking a real barn, not the Instagram kind where even the cows are perfect,” Harris recalls. “In New Orleans, I lived in a nice house on less than a quarter acre and saw my neighbors every day. In the Rockdale barn, I met my one neighbor once in six months.” Harris says that he’s done 700 phone meetings in the past three years with executives in Japan that started between 11 p.m. and 12 p.m., and often lasted well into the early morning hours. “Then I’d sleep a couple of hours on the floor in the office, and get back to work ordering supplies, say, at 6 a.m., then go all day and take a nap at five before the calls to Japan.”

Building fast through the pandemic while doing jobs in house and helping suppliers

Harris deployed two strategies that helped him skirt the snarls that slowed so many big infrastructure projects after COVID-19 struck in March of 2020. The first is using his own electricians, engineers, and other workers to build equipment and perform complicated tasks that are usually outsourced. Whinstone fashioned its own “interconnect,” a silvery web of wiring that links the 138,000-volt grid outside its property to its own substation. Harris’s employees and contractors built the substation on-site as well. “It would have taken 16 to 18 months to get one delivered, so we bought all the parts and did it ourselves in a couple of months,” he says.

The second strategy is doing everything possible to make life easy for suppliers. “Part of that is making giant orders in advance,” says Harris. “When we first started, I ordered all the four-inch–diameter orange conduit, the pipe that runs underground and contains the wiring, that was available in the U.S.” Each of Whinstone’s seven buildings has 35 to 50 transformers that lower the heavy current from the substation so that it’s at the right level to power the computers. “I ordered tons of them in August of 2019 before we even had a lease from Alcoa. What a gamble! But it worked.” He’s also built a reputation for paying suppliers right on time, or even in advance. “We make sure they’re not using their own money to support our project,” he notes. “We buy materials for them all the time that they normally have to buy for themselves. So their only expenses are labor and overhead. Not a lot of project managers think that way. Our greatest skill is sending money to contractors as fast as we can.” For Harris, the payoff is that during the pandemic shortages, loyal suppliers tended to fill Whinstone’s orders first, a benefit that continues to this day.

Cooling technology is a crucial area for improving the productivity and longevity of the ASIC machines that mostly run 24/7 spewing Bitcoin-winning codes. And Whinstone’s a pioneer in the field. It’s first in the world to deploy groundbreaking “immersion cooled” mining on an industrial scale. The process is a big improvement over standard air cooling. The miners are submerged in a specialized, oil-based “dielectric” fluid that circulates to keep the computers’ integrated circuits at lower temperatures. The liquid absorbs the heat from the machines. In a continuous loop, the heated fluid is pumped to a heat-exchanger that cools it down, and the re-cooled liquid flows back into the immersion tank to circulate around integrated circuits. Of the 400 MW expansion that will get Whinstone to 700 MW by year-end, 200 MW will feature immersion cooling. Says Harris, “It controls the temperature of the miners much better than air cooling.”

The technology provides two major advantages. First, it prolongs the life of the computers. “Instead of lasting three years, the machines can last five years,” says Harris. “You’re depreciating them over longer periods, lowering capital costs.” Second, the process can greatly raise the hashrate for the same ASIC miners. In an October press release, Riot stated that its own test result and industry data showed a 25% increase in hashes per second, and that the potential jump could be as much as 50%. In addition, the machines run in what Harris calls “dead silence” versus the regular loud humming noise, and all the tanks stand at desk height, making machines much easier to maintain than when they’re stacked in towering racks. It’s possible that the extra efficiency provided by immersion cooling could lift Whinstone’s output to as much as 10% of the world’s Bitcoin production.

Meanwhile, Harris has gotten to love life in Rockdale. He’s even persuaded craggy restaurant owners to use real ground beef in their burgers, and fancy them up New Orleans–style. After a long day installing computers or ordering transformers, he rides his gravel bike at night, followed by a buddy driving behind him to illuminate the bumpy road. He’s thrilled that Brett Boren, who runs his favorite eatery, Brett’s Backyard Bar-B-Que is running for mayor. “Brett’s an all or nothing guy like me,” says Harris. He marvels that Rockdale’s upswing is now following his own. Bitcoin is helping swell the town’s tax receipts by 25% a month, he says, and providing the funds for new lights at the baseball field.

I asked Harris, as a former landscaper, how he felt about clearing an entire forest to create the sandpit where Whinstone’s seven buildings now rise. He responded that he’s already using his old skills in summoning nature to perfume and beautify the site. “When I’m finished it will look like a botanical garden,” he says. “We’ve already planted about 300 trees. I put organics in the soil and ran irrigation lines. We’ll have holly trees, and crape myrtles for flowers.” The refugee from New Orleans has also planted the roots for what may be the biggest crop of Bitcoin in any place on the planet, in probably the last spot he ever expected would become his field of dreams.

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