Captain Kirk might be able to discuss the properties of dilithium crystals and give directions to Rigel XII, but don’t ask him to explain bitcoin.
“The concept is so, I guess the word is bizarre,” Kirk’s alter ego, William Shatner, said by phone Wednesday. “You have to blank your mind and say, ‘What is blockchain, again? How does mining operate, again?’ The concepts are really strange, and yet when you begin to grasp it, it makes sense.”
Shatner is the spokesman for Solar Alliance, a Vancouver-based developer of alternative energy projects that announced plans to build a solar-powered Bitcoin mining operation in an abandoned southern Illinois factory.
Bitcoin mining harnesses computer networks to validate and record transactions that use the virtual currency, a task for which “miners” are paid in bitcoin (a single unit was going for more than $6,200 Wednesday). The process requires huge amounts of electricity, and that’s where Solar Alliance CEO Jason Bak saw an opportunity.
He said Illinois’ policy of requiring utility companies to buy renewable energy made the project economically feasible. It also didn’t hurt that the mayor of Murphysboro, Will Stephens, offered the company a 165,000-square-foot former label-making factory that has been vacant since 2004.
Bak said the project will involve the creation of a huge solar array on the factory’s 14-acre parcel. The space inside the building will be leased to bitcoin mining companies, he said, with some reserved for a training center that will teach solar panel installation.
He hoped to have some tenants lined up by the end of the year, though he didn’t know when the solar array will be finished.
Stephens said his town of 8,000, perched just west of Carbondale, is in need of an economic boost. Some microbreweries and tourist ventures have opened, he said, “but we, like a lot of Middle America, have seen job losses because of a change in the worldwide economy.”
Virtual currencies have plenty of skeptics — famed investor Warren Buffett recently referred to them as “probably rat poison squared” — but Stephens said he didn’t fear that the venture, which is supposed to be partially funded by a TIF district, would be a bust.
Bitcoin’s underlying blockchain technology, essentially a massive digital ledger on which transactions are securely recorded, is being adopted by all sorts of industries, he said, so a solar-powered computing center could still be valuable even if cryptocurrencies fade.
“From my perspective, we’re going to have someone who will occupy a previously derelict property, and whatever development comes out of it will just make it more marketable if the project is not successful,” he said.
Shatner, who got involved with Solar Alliance after it installed the solar panels on his California home, said he might check out the mining operation in person once it’s operational.
“I’m in Chicago a lot, and I live in Kentucky part of the time,” he said. “I might very well do that. It’s an interesting idea to see it at work because … it’s so esoteric that it’s difficult to understand.”