Heating with bitcoin: What? Why?

This is a post in part to help my Nana explain to people what the noisy thing in her dining room is and why anyone would want that. This is the first post in a series.

I have spent the weekend at my Nanas house after travelling to Newport last week (You could still buy petrol back then). Last week I went to pick up an Antminer s19 pro. It’s a very special computer.

To the core of it, the following is what the system looked like when I left it last.

This large boxed system behind the wood-burning stove is mostly hollow air chambers. The actual computer looks like this, the sound is the reason for the hollow air chambers.

The heating system in this chocolate box cottage is direct electric. That means that the electricity is passed through a wire, the resistance of that wire causes heat, that heat is used to warm the house.

The reason this is such an expensive way to heat a house is mainly because it is compared to a regular gas boiler. Even though at home you pay more than the wholesale price for gas (this winter notwithstanding) most of the electricity in the UK comes from natural gas plants. Those plants are thermal pumps, the gas is burned which creates heat to boil steam to power a generator which produces the electricity. The efficiency of this is only about 34%.

That is to say, only 34% of the energy released from the burning of the gas becomes electricity. The rest becomes heat which normally just goes up a cooling tower but can go on to heat local homes.

If the system we have is to burn gas to produce electricity to then produce heat, we are never going to get down to the price of just burning the gas.

There is an option that comes close called a heat pump but there are a few reasons that wasn’t a good option for my Nana. First, the chocolate box cottage is listed and thatched so no solar heat pump based heating could be used. The other style of heat pump, ground heat pumps are far more expensive, they start at £30k and only go up from there.

The other issue with ground heat pumps is they would have to dig up the beautiful garden making a mess of all Nana’s hard work in the garden.

All energy will become heat eventually. That is the result of the laws of thermodynamics and the nature of entropy.

A 100w light bulb in a box (So that the light doesn’t escape out the windows) will heat a room just as much as a 100w heater will. This is independent of the type of light. A 100w LED will be much much brighter than a 100w incandescent but both will end up expelling 100w of heat into the room as all the light they produce becomes heat as it’s absorbed by the containing box.

This means that if you can do something with the energy before it becomes heat, you can use the energy twice. If you can cook with the heat before it heats the kitchen then you don’t now have to heat the kitchen again. You’ve got 2 useful things out of the single amount of heat.

Electricity is a very high entropy form of energy. What that really means for us is that it’s the most useful kind of energy; most useful because it’s easy to move and convert into any other kind of energy, mechanical, heat, light, even computation.

Independent of which of these forms we transfer it into, the whole sum of energy will become heat. Normally this heat is a problem. One of the limiting factors on electric motors is the heat generated which can lead to a motor “burning out”. The same is true of computers, one of the issues of making them go faster and the reason that their core speed (clock speed) hasn’t really improved since 2004 is because of the issue of too much heat being produced.

It just so happens that in a cottage far away from gas mains heat is what we want the electricity to become. We can do something useful with the electricity before it becomes heat.

The easiest way to do this is through computation. 3kw of light would light up a runway but that’s not much use in the cottage. 3kw of motion might move a moped but isn’t overly useful in a small cottage. 3kw of sound is definitely not what you want.

How can we make it so that the computation is consistent and profitable? One way to make it consistent would be for me to set up a server that was either rendering an animated movie or training a neural network. However much I’d love to render a 24 hour long 16k photorealistic beach scene I haven’t yet made the blender file to then click render and let it render over the course of the winter (My efforts so far in a coming post). The same for the speech to text language models that I haven't been able to find the time to code up. I’m sure using film’s subtitles as source material would result in the training time taking the whole winter on consumer hardware.

Both of those options also suffer from monetisation issues. Yes both have a lot of value to me and if my idea for a phoneme speech to text model does indeed work better and allow for language-agnostic training then it would be worth money, but in that case, I still have the issue of actually making it, which I’m yet to do.

Since 2009 there has been a way to turn computation resources into funds more directly. That is cryptocurrency mining. 

When mining you are paid for the security you add to the cryptocurrency. This means the computer can be run 24/7 and the computational resources are turned almost directly into money.


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