Since releasing the first Ethereum whitepaper in 2014, Ethereum’s developers have explicitly mentioned their desire to eventually adapt proof-of-stake instead of proof-of-work, but due to technical difficulties, it has not previously been feasible. Yet, Ethereum’s transition from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake - known as “the merge” - is now closer than ever. On the 8th of June, the first public test of the merge is set to occur subsequent to seven other minor tests. On this day, the existing test network Ropsten is set to perform a merge. If the Ropsten merge is successful, Ethereum will merge two other existing test networks, ahead of the actual merge. With this knowledge and insight from the Ethereum Foundation, it seems reasonable to consider that the merge will take place in August, considering that the tests turn out well. With the merge taking place in the near future, we look at the ways it changes Ethereum both technically and economically.
From miners to stakers
The most substantial change is the transition from proof-of-work to proof-of-stake, fundamentally changing by what method the network verifies transactions. Instead of tremendous computing power put at the network’s disposal by miners, holders of Ether are those to verify transactions. This means that holders have the option to lock their Ether as collateral to be able to verify transactions, in other words, stake their Ether. In return, they receive the transaction fees alongside the security cost. The latter is the newly issued Ether to financially encourage miners at this point in time, but it later goes to stakers for verify transactions. With proof-of-stake, the main security feature is that stakers can be slashed. In case the network determines that a staker has behaved unethically, for instance, tried to reverse transactions, the network can take some or all of their staked Ether.
More environmentally friendly
When adapting proof-of-stake, Ethereum reduces its energy consumption by around 99.95%. To understand why we must again consider the differences between the consensus mechanisms. With respect to Ethereum, a new block is currently finalized around every 13th second. In these 13 seconds, every miner fights to be the one to finalize the block. This involves applying computing power and thus requires electricity. However, in the end, it is solely one miner that finalizes the block and verifies the transactions, even though other miners have spent a tremendous amount of energy on the same block. In terms of proof-of-stake, one validator is randomly chosen to finalize a block based on one’s amount of Ether staked. This happens prior to the block, so no other staker is trying to finalize the same block, ultimately reducing Ethereum’s energy consumption by around 99.95%.
Improved and fairer economics
Because the energy required to verify transactions on Ethereum drastically decreases, the security cost can likewise decline massively. With proof-of-work, Ethereum’s security cost amounts to around 5.4mn Ether yearly. This means that 5.4mn new Ether gets issued yearly to the present supply of around 120mn Ether to encourage miners to verify transactions. At the time of the merge, the security cost declines to around 0.5mn Ether yearly being compensated to stakers. This is an extensive reduction in the inflation of Ethereum, which might even make Ethereum deflationary since the paid transaction costs are expected to outpace Ethereum’s security cost. With respect to transaction fees, a substantial part of these get burned, hence removed from the supply. Over time this might result in a supply shock because the market is used to absorbing 5.4mn newly issued Ether yearly but suddenly only around 0.5mn Ether is to be issued.
One might also argue that proof-of-stake is economically fairer for holders of Ethereum than proof-of-work. With proof-of-work, you can technically verify transactions without holding Ether as long as you invest heavily in computing power. This means that holders are not compensated for the inflation and transaction fees, effectively diluting them. In the case of proof-of-stake, stakers are compensated fairly for the inflation and transaction fees.
Not significantly more scalable, though
By default, the merge does not make Ethereum significantly more scalable. If the merge turns out well, the merge decreases the block size from around 13 to 12 seconds but maintains the same block size. This ultimately leads to an increase in transactional output of 7.5% but not much more than that. Based on the present schedule, Ethereum will first significantly improve scalability sometime in 2023. It is intended that shard chains get implemented around here, which will massively improve Ethereum’s scalability and possibly require even less hardware to verify transactions.
12.8mn Ether to be unlocked later
On December 1st, 2020, the proof-of-stake version of Ethereum went live, known as the Beacon Chain. The Beacon Chain is technically the one to be merged with proof-of-work based Ethereum when the merge occurs. The Beacon Chain has been finalizing empty blocks since it went live to ensure that it works as intended. To verify these blocks, Ethereum holders have been able to stake Ether on the Beacon Chain. Over 10% of the total supply of Ether, around 12.8mn Ether, is now staked on the Beacon Chain.
However, by staking Ether on the Beacon Chain, the Ether has been locked. It was originally planned to unlock the staked Ether when the merge occurs, but to simplify the merge from a technical point of view, Ethereum’s developers have chosen not to unlock the staked funds at the time of the merge. The unlocking will likely follow 6 months after the merge, in which the 12.8mn Ether alongside the afterward staked Ether will be unlocked. The compensated security cost and transaction fees to stakers are likewise locked in these months. This means that presumably until next year no newly issued Ether nor transaction fees are expected to hit the circulating supply, potentially limiting selling pressure. On the other hand, when the staked Ether is unlocked, which is not unlikely to be above 15mn Ether at that time, it might result in severe selling pressure.
More of the same
The merge will not impact Ethereum by other substantial means. First, it is not planned to impact or require holders of Ether to take an active stance. The merge will occur without them noticing. Secondly, it should not influence tokens or decentralized applications presently utilizing Ethereum. This means that deployed tokens and smart contracts on Ethereum are planned to work like before the merge.
Although Ethereum’s developers have worked on the merge for years, it can turn out bad or be further delayed. Just like everything else in crypto, there are simply no guarantees.