Bitcoin mining is the process of earning bitcoin in exchange for running the verification process to validate bitcoin transactions. These transactions provide security for the Bitcoin network which in turn compensates miners by giving them bitcoins. Miners can profit if the price of bitcoins exceeds the cost to mine. With recent changes in technology and the creation of professional mining centers with enormous computing power, as well as the shifting price of bitcoin itself, many individual miners are asking themselves, is bitcoin mining still profitable? 

There are several factors that determine whether bitcoin mining is a profitable venture. These include the cost of the electricity to power the computer system (cost of electricity), the availability and price of the computer system, and the difficulty in providing the services. Difficulty is measured in the hashes per second of the Bitcoin validation transaction. The hash rate measures the rate of solving the problem—the difficulty changes as more miners enter because the network is designed to produce a certain level of bitcoins every ten minutes. When more miners enter the market, the difficulty increases to ensure that the level is static. The last factor for determining profitability is the price of bitcoins as compared against standard, hard currency.

Key Takeaways

  • Bitcoin is mined using computing rigs which include expensive hardware.
  • Miners are rewarded with bitcoin for verifying blocks of transactions to the blockchain network.
  • As more miners compete for bitcoin rewards, the process becomes more difficult.
  • To determine whether bitcoin mining is profitable for you, consider costs of equipment and electricity as well as the difficulty associated with mining and how the price of bitcoin will impact potential rewards.

The Components of Bitcoin Mining

Prior to the advent of new bitcoin mining software in 2013, mining was generally done on personal computers. But the introduction of application specific integrated circuit chips (ASIC) offered up to 100 billion times the capability of older personal machines, rendering the use of personal computing to mine bitcoins inefficient and obsolete. While bitcoin mining is still theoretically possible with older hardware, there is little question that it is not a profitable venture. This is because of the way that mining is set up: miners are competing to solve hash problems as quickly as possible, so those miners at a serious computational disadvantage essentially stand no chance of solving a problem first and being rewarded with bitcoin. When miners used the old machines, the difficulty in mining bitcoins was roughly in line with the price of bitcoins. But with these new machines came issues related to both the high cost to obtain and run the new equipment and the lack of availability.

Profitability Before and After ASIC

Old timers (say, way back in 2009) mining bitcoins using just their personal computers were able to make a profit for several reasons. First, these miners already owned their systems, so equipment costs were effectively nil. They could change the settings on their computers to run more efficiently with less stress. Second, these were the days before professional bitcoin mining centers with massive computing power entered the game. Early miners only had to compete with other individual miners on home computer systems. The competition was on even footing. Even when electricity costs varied based on geographic region, the difference was not enough to deter individuals from mining.

After ASICs came into play, the game changed. Individuals were now competing against powerful mining rigs that had more computing power. Mining profits were getting chipped away by expenses like purchasing new computing equipment, paying higher energy costs for running the new equipment, and the continued difficulty in mining.

Difficulty of Mining Bitcoin

As discussed above, the difficulty rate associated with mining bitcoin is variable and changes roughly every two weeks in order to maintain a stable production of verified blocks for the blockchain (and, in turn, bitcoins introduced into circulation). The higher the difficulty rate, the less likely that an individual miner is to successfully be able to solve the hash problem and earn bitcoin. In recent years, the mining difficulty rate has skyrocketed. When bitcoin was first launched, the difficulty was 1. As of May 2020, it is more than 16 trillion. This provides an idea of just how many times more difficult it is to mine for bitcoin now than it was a decade ago.

Shifting Rewards

The Bitcoin network will be capped at 21 million total bitcoin. This has been a key stipulation of the entire ecosystem since it was founded, and the limit is put in place to attempt to control for supply of the cryptocurrency. Currently, over 18 million bitcoin have been mined. As a way of controlling the introduction of new bitcoin into circulation, the network protocol halves the number of bitcoin rewarded to miners for successfully completing a block about every four years. Initially, the number of bitcoin a miner received was 50. In 2012, this number was halved and the reward became 25. In 2016, it halved again to 12.5. In May 2020, the reward halved once again to 6.25, the current reward. Prospective miners should be aware that the reward size will decrease into the future, even as difficulty is liable to increase.

Profitability in Today’s Environment

Bitcoin mining can still make sense and be profitable for some individuals. Equipment is more easily obtained, although competitive ASICs cost anywhere from a few hundred dollars up to about $10,000. In an effort to stay competitive, some machines have adapted. For example, some hardware allows users to alter settings to lower energy requirements, thus lowering overall costs. Prospective miners should perform a cost/benefit analysis to understand their breakeven price before making the fixed-cost purchases of the equipment. The variables needed to make this calculation are:

  • Cost of power: what is your electricity rate? Keep in mind that rates change depending on the season, the time of day, and other factors. You can find this information on your electric bill measured in kWh.
  • Efficiency: how much power does your system consume, measured in watts?
  • Time: what is the anticipated length of time you will spend mining? 
  • Bitcoin value: what is the value of a bitcoin in U.S. dollars or other official currency?

There are several web-based profitability calculators, such as the one provided by CryptoCompare, that would-be miners can use to analyze the cost/benefit equation of bitcoin mining. Profitability calculators differ slightly and some are more complex than others.

Run your analysis several times using different price levels for both the cost of power and value of bitcoins. Also, change the level of difficulty to see how that impacts the analysis. Determine at what price level bitcoin mining becomes profitable for you—that is your breakeven price. As of May 2020, the price of bitcoin is hovering around $8,000. Given a current reward of 6.25 BTC for a completed block, miners are rewarded around $50,000 for successfully completing a hash. Of course, as the price of bitcoin is highly variable, this reward figure is likely to change.

To compete against the mining mega centers, individuals can join a mining pool, which is a group of miners who work together and share the rewards. This can increase the speed and reduce the difficulty in mining, putting profitability in reach. As difficulty and cost have increased, more and more individual miners have opted to participate in a pool. While the overall reward decreases because it is shared among multiple participants, the combined computing power means that mining pools stand a much greater chance of actually completing a hashing problem first and receiving a reward in the first place.

To answer the question of whether bitcoin mining is still profitable, use a web-based profitability calculator to run a cost-benefit analysis. You can plug in different numbers and find your breakeven point (after which mining is profitable). Determine if you are willing to lay out the necessary initial capital for the hardware, and estimate the future value of bitcoins as well as the level of difficulty. When both bitcoin prices and mining difficulty decline, it usually indicates fewer miners and more ease in receiving bitcoins. When bitcoin prices and mining difficulty rise, expect the opposite—more miners competing for fewer bitcoins.