In the US, coal is on the ropes for several reasons. First, the strong dollar is making exporting coal [and LNG] relatively uneconomic.

Second, coal has become uneconomic. Coal burners are turning to lower-cost natural gas or renewable energy. In fact, no US utility is seriously considering building a new coal-fired power plant. To make matters worse, most utilities who own coal-burning assets are seeking exit plans.

Then, there's this:

"Recent report reveals dramatic decline in number of active W.Va. miners"

The article describes declining mining activity in WVA. They report that 2,596 WVA miners lost their jobs in the first quarter. It should not be a surprise. What they do not say is more jobs will be lost in 2015 as dozens of uneconomic power plants exit from the nation's deregulated power markets.

The article is exaggerating when it suggests the root cause of WVA's mining woes is a federal war on coal. There's no federal war on coal. There is federal [and state] war on carbon.

Just ask the natural gas burners. Ask oil burners. Ask nuclear burners. Ask state regulators. But, don't ask the media. And, for heaven sakes, don't ask a politician.

Victor Niederhoffer asks: 

If all this supply is coming off the market, isn't that bullish? 

Carder Dimitroff writes:

Interesting question. The answer is not simple.

Coal mining will struggle. Coal transportation will struggle. Gas boilers will struggle. Manufacturers supporting these types of assets will also struggle.

Turbine manufacturers are gaining. General Electric, Siemens and other turbine manufacturers are seeing growth in high technology turbine sales (combined cycle gas turbines). They offer turbines that are 60 percent fuel-efficient (coal burners are approximately 20 to 30 percent fuel-efficient). The combination of high fuel efficiency, low fuel costs and low labor costs offers buyers a significant competitive advantage.

Energy prices are unlikely to improve. Market-clearing prices for wholesale power are challenged as low-cost gas turbines enter the market. Ohio alone expects six new gas turbines (the equivalent of four new nuclear power plants). These turbines will likely lower average market-clearing prices by displacing less competitive sources (coal).

Energy prices are also challenged as renewables and energy efficiency programs take hold and grow. As California demonstrates, it only takes a small amount of renewable energy (or energy efficiency and demand-response) to shave off average market-clearing prices.

Nuclear power is winning on the carbon war argument. The State of Illinois recently passed a carbon bill, which helps existing nuclear power plants (Exelon) and renewable energy sources.

While existing nuclear power is a winner, new nuclear plants are losers. It appears no new nuclear plants will be built for a long, long time. Yes, there are nuclear construction projects underway. Yes, nuclear power displaces carbon and other air pollutants. However, it's not enough. After watching TVA, SCG and SO struggle with spiraling nuclear construction costs, it's unlikely other utilities [or state regulators] will repeat their mistakes. In fact, it appears most other applicants have put their nuclear ambitions on the shelf.

Capacity markets are improving. Old and inefficient plants cannot compete. Some assets are failing to clear auctions. As such, it shouldn't be a surprise that the market's losers are forced into permanent retirement. They can blame the "war on coal" if they want, but it's mostly operating economics that are driving retirement decisions. Those decisions are also capturing other types of plants; not just coal plants.

In the spirit of markets, there appears to be clear winners at the expense of losers.

Stefan Jovanovich writes:

Thanks to another part of my misspent youth, when the U.S. Navy wasted its money teaching me about marine propulsion systems, turbines continue to fascinate me. So, any pretense of knowledge here is restricted to that subject only. The inefficiency of what Carder calls "coal burners" comes from the fuel, not the gas that moves the turbine blades. Steam is actually slighty more efficient than natural gas in its isentropic efficiency because it is easier to capture the residual heat energy from steam after it passes through the first (and second) turbines. (Note: "isentropic efficiency" is the ratio of a turbine's actual power output to those of theoretical turbine with perfect physics with the same inlet conditions and discharge pressures. Or, to put it in engineering speak - actual enthalpy drop divided by the isentropic enthalpy drop).

So, "coal burners" - i.e. plants that burn coal to generate steam - are "inefficient" only because coal has a much lower energy density than other fuels. (This why the British Navy switched from coal to bunker oil; the same ships could go much farther without refueling using the same fuel storage spaces.)

As to how prices for fuels will arbitrage the energy density differentials, beats me; but List members should not take the relative electrical generating efficiency numbers to be a statement about the obsolescence of steam turbines. This is not a repeat of the fate of the railroad steam engine.


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