Bitcoin Mining’s Boon for Small Town America

Will Foxley’s doc about a small Texas town’s embrace of a new mining facility paints a more positive story about Bitcoin’s impact on rural communities than typically reported.

AccessTimeIconApr 5, 2024 at 7:18 p.m. UTC
Updated Apr 5, 2024 at 7:21 p.m. UTC

It isn’t always clear how crypto is changing lives. The incorporality of blockchain ledgers, the fact that crypto wallets are online (not made of leather) and the limited number of real world use cases all contribute to the common view that crypto, at most, is silly internet money. But for as ethereal as Ethereum is, crypto does have an actual footprint.

That idea is at the center of a new documentary about Bitcoin mining by Will Foxley, ex-CoinDesker turned independent crypto media mogul. Released today, “The Big Empty,” tells the story of when digital asset heavyweight Galaxy Digital descends on the small, rural and nearly hollowed out city of Spur (population: 863).

Unlike many stories about bitcoin mining, which tend to focus on the industry’s intense energy footprint (and whether that is good or bad), “The Big Empty” is first and foremost about people. About the former East Coast Galaxy employees who moved to West Texas and learned to adjust, about the locals whose families settled in the area generations ago and about the lives changed by a new industry.

In a way, Bitcoin mining was destined to become a controversial topic by the way the network was designed. The proof-of-work algorithm that keeps Bitcoin humming burns through energy without limit. Every year, it seems, more mines open — often using carbon-intensive sources of energy, sometimes even firing up defunct coal power plants.

But on the ground that debate seems muted, at least as the documentary presents it. The energy mix of miners and looming threat of climate change are as incorporeal and distant as Bitcoin itself. To the extent that Spur’s residents seem concerned about the giant Helios mine opening a few miles down the road, it’s often just because of the jobs it has been providing.

“The small towns [bitcoin mines] inhabit often don't have many high paying or stable jobs,” Foxley told CoinDesk in an interview. “There may be a few retail shops, convenience stores, things like that, but it's not a lot.”

To say that Galaxy is single handedly revitalizing the town of Spur might be overstating the case , but it seems incontrovertible that it has a presence. But as much as the doc highlights Galaxy’s good deeds (like reopening a beloved public pool), it is also a story about, as Foxley says, keeping that up and learning to be “a good neighbor,” which isn’t necessarily assured in the long haul.

CoinDesk caught up with Foxley to talk about his latest documentary, what attracted him to the story of Spur in particular and why it is that a massive bitcoin mine might be a good fit for a city that was previously best known as a magnet for tiny homes.

Just wanted to say it was a great doc, really well done. Are you planning to submit it to any festivals?

It was definitely a very strong team, so I can’t take all the credit. This would be my third mining specific film and fourth bitcoin doc. It’s my longest by far — I personally call it my first short film. I don't know the difference between a short film or a documentary or mini doc. I'll probably submit it to some film festivals to try to get some more traction. Will definitely screen it at some bitcoin meetups and events If we try to do any sort of streaming services, we can't go the social media route. But if someone likes it, we might be able to place it somewhere cool.

In some sense the story of bitcoin mining in the U.S. is the story of revitalization. Could you speak to what you’ve seen when touring bitcoin mines around the country?

Bitcoin miners are flocking to small towns because that's often where there's excess energy from industries that have left or cheaper power from overbuilt substations and power stations. It’s a natural place for bitcoin miners to go because they have to chase cheap energy.

The small towns they inhabit often don't have many high paying or stable jobs. They don't have any sort of industry at this point. There may be a few retail shops, convenience stores, things like that, but it's not a lot. To really revitalize a town you need some sort of industry.

Bitcoin mining is interesting because there might not be that many jobs per bitcoin mine. But you create a lot of external jobs around that. In the film, you'll see there's tons of people who work in contracting and are in and out of the facility, truck drivers, repair technicians, people pouring concrete, security guards. Even just thinking about the facility, they plan on opening up a kitchen to feed the 40 workers there. That's going to be like five to 10 new jobs.

Do you have a sense of what technicians are generally paid?

Often it’s double minimum wage, $20-$30 bucks an hour for an intro technician. It scales up from there. One of the great pieces we didn't even get to fit in the doc is that Galaxy pays 20% above the rate for the town. Bitcoin mining is a slightly more lucrative industry. So they raised a lot of people's standards of living even doing a sort of blue collar level job.

Was there something specific about Galaxy or Helios that attracted you to the story?

Mostly just access. Galaxy was interested in opening up the doors. Corporations have to be mindful of their public image, (Galaxy is publicly traded), but I was impressed by how willing they were to work with a documentary film crew, because that's not always a very comfortable experience.

The second thing — there's a lot of these Texas bitcoin mining stories that I’m not very interested in because people tend to focus on the energy or bitcoin side of things. I was really interested in the small town story, and participating in town life. Most people we talked to were immediately open to having a conversation or dialogue, which made it more attractive when we scoped it out last year.

There was actually a tornado the day we landed that took out a large chunk of the neighboring town. One thing that was really interesting to see was how many people from all the surrounding towns drove out to help them out. There were miles of cars with supplies trying to get into that small town. It became pretty clear that the people who live in these towns in West Texas are just a different breed. They care about each other. They're good neighbors.

You definitely get that sense watching the movie. Especially the scene with the tiny home community. What were you trying to say by including those scenes?

So the initial name for the film actually was “Tiny Home Kingdom.” We were trying to riff on, like, tiny homes versus a mega bitcoin mine. It sounded good on paper. But you probably have to make the doc a little more silly to go that route. You know, live with someone in their tiny home for a week.

The tiny homes showed how open Spur was in working and talking with other communities outside of what you'd find normally in the Texas panhandle. They opened their doors around 2015 to become a location for tiny homes. Many cities are zoned to block tiny homes, because they find it annoying or think it lowers property valuations. Spur was trying to find an angle to bring people back. It shows that they're interested in having new neighbors — it’s just that the next neighbor to move in happened to be an 800 megawatt bitcoin mine.

Galaxy also struck a deal to reopen the town pool. Are these types of investments common for bitcoin mines?

It's pretty common to have bitcoin mines do this. I've heard other stories where it's also been a town pool. I've heard about companies fixing the community rec center. The Riot team in Rockdale funds the local softball team. It’s because, again, when you move into a small town like this you have to become a good neighbor. You have to learn what that looks like, and as a corporation that can be kind of hard. It’s not like a lot of other tech or finance jobs; the business really runs out of one small rural town that has been the same way for generations. The easiest way to ingratiate yourself into the community is often by doing something practical.

Another thing we didn't get to touch on is that Spur is a hotspot for drug issues, like a lot of low income places. We often think of drugs as being an urban problem. But it’s very much a rural problem. There's not a lot of hope and opportunity. A lot of people are born in Spur and move away to Lubbock or Austin or Dallas. And the people who are there sometimes can feel left behind. In some sense, the pool is a symbol: this big tech company cares about the local people.

Did you talk to anyone concerned about noise pollution?

Not for this site. That could be a challenge going forward because they are deploying some air units. But right now, the facility is all immersion — it's the largest immersion bitcoin mine to my knowledge in North America. The nice thing about immersion mining is it’s basically silent. And the mine itself is on its own little spot pretty far away from any housing development. About 10 miles away from the city Spur. And everything out there is at least a 20 minute drive. So there shouldn't be any noise complaints to my knowledge.

Any closing thoughts?

I would like this film and other work we do to encourage people to think outside the box — about how towns can bring in businesses and about how these companies can add to communities. I think Galaxy did a really good job with that. They fulfilled their promise with this pool everyone's gonna be jumping and splashing around in. They even said that in the film, right? Like, if you're not splashing in the pool this summer, then Galaxy failed.

I do think bitcoin mining is going to become a more important conversation for local communities. If bitcoin miners don't find a good way of balancing their businesses within small towns, there's going to be more problems. It's OK for small towns to say they don't like things.


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Daniel Kuhn

Daniel Kuhn is a deputy managing editor for Consensus Magazine. He owns minor amounts of BTC and ETH.