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Coal burns bright as utilities switch from gas

 

Mario Parker and Naureen S. Malik
(c) 2014, Bloomberg News


CHICAGO — Predictions of coal's demise in the United States may be greatly exaggerated.

Natural gas prices at a four-year high have utilities shifting to coal to generate 4.519 million megawatt-hours a day, the most since 2011, government data show. Within three years, coal's share of power production could climb to 40.3 percent from about 39 percent last year, while gas's share will probably drop to 27 percent from 27.5, the U.S. Energy Information Administration said.

An arctic blast has helped put the U.S. on pace for the coldest winter in more than 30 years through January, prompting utilities to burn more of the less expensive coal. The U.S. is poised to emit the most carbon dioxide in three years, undermining President Barack Obama's efforts to reduce pollution and steer utilities away from the fossil fuel.

"The idea of coal disappearing is not an effective climate change policy," said John Thompson, an analyst at the Boston- based Clean Air Task Force. "Coal use is growing."

Thompson said implementing technology that allows utilities to capture carbon is better than trying to eliminate coal because other countries are increasing use of the fuel.

Coal on the New York Mercantile Exchange has risen 13 percent to $57.40 a ton as of Feb. 12, from its 12-month low of $50.84 on Sept. 4. Gas has surged 56 percent to $5.168 per million British thermal units. Prices reached $5.557 on Jan. 29, the highest since January 2010.

Temperatures during the heating season, which runs from November to March, have been below the 20th century average, with December coming in the coldest since 2009, according to the National Climatic Data Center in Asheville, N.C.

U.S. electricity output in the week ended Feb. 8 was 11 percent higher than the same week a year earlier, data from the Edison Electric Institute, a Washington-based group that represents power companies, show.

That's helped to push gas prices up more than 50 percent from a year ago while coal prices have slipped 1.9 percent during the same period. An average U.S. natural gas plant can make a profit of $3.04 a megawatt-hour, based on March prices, compared with a profit of $31.58 for the typical coal-fired generator, data compiled by Bloomberg show.

The counter argument for coal's rebound is that a return of mild winters combined with record gas production could knock back gas prices, making coal less competitive to burn, said Lucas Pipes, an analyst at Brean Capital in New York.

Coal commanded 50 percent of total U.S. electricity. generation as recently as 2005. It sank to a record low of 37 percent in 2012 as gas prices tumbled to a 10-year low of $1.902 in April of that year.

Hydraulic fracturing, or fracking, unlocked shale deposits that previously were uneconomical to produce and helped cause a glut of gas. Mild winters in 2012 and 2013, also contributed to lower utility reliance on coal, according to Hans Daniels, executive vice president at Doyle Trading Consultants, a Grand Junction, Colo.-based coal analysis company.

The utility industry's turn away from coal swelled stockpiles above 200 million tons in 2012 for just the second time in the last 20 years, Energy Information Administration data show. Coal stocks have fallen 14 percent through October, the most recent month for which data is available, according to the government.

As utilities eat through the excess supply, they set the U.S. on a course to boost carbon dioxide emissions by 1.2 percent to the highest since 2011, the EIA said in its Feb. 11 Short-Term Energy Outlook.

Burning coal emits 205.7 pounds of carbon dioxide per million British thermal units compared with 117 pounds per million Btu for natural gas.

Obama's Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, or MATS, will be implemented next year, forcing older plants to install technology to reduce the pollutants or retire. In his Jan. 28 State of the Union Address Obama signaled that he's prepared to act without Congress to advance parts of his agenda and said the country has to "act with more urgency" to fight climate change.

Electricity generation contributed about 39 percent of the U.S.'s carbon dioxide emissions in 2012, government data show. Still, the country's efforts to reduce pollution may be muted if other nation's increase coal use, said Wyatt King, resident expert on climate and environmental issues at Washington-based Albright Stonebridge Group.

Coal is the fastest growing energy source in the world, rising 2.3 percent a year through 2018, and poised to dethrone crude oil as the largest source by 2020, the International Energy Agency said in its December Medium-Term Coal Market Report.

That's being driven mostly by China, "where coal is powering an industrial revolution," Laszlo Varro, head of the agency's gas, coal and power markets, said in a Jan. 29 presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington. The fuel is also experiencing a resurgence in Europe as the continent's economic woes increase its appetite for cheap electricity, he said.

"We get a sense that coal is backing natural gas out of the stack," said Brison Bickerton, head of strategy at Freepoint Commodities LLC in Stamford, Connecticut. "Coal burn should remain on for some time. Prices are incentivizing unused coal capacity to come on and back out natural gas demand."

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Malik reported from New York.

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