Coal demand spikes amid global pandemic recovery
About a decade ago, at an energy conference in Washington, D.C., Aubrey McClendon, CEO of Chesapeake Energy and a leader in promoting U.S. natural gas produced with hydraulic fracturing, made fun of coal.
Standing on the stage in front of several hundred analysts, politicians, bankers, journalists and industry participants, he held a lump of coal in his hand. Before launching into his corporate PowerPoint slides, he smirked and asked how anyone who had ever held a piece of coal could possibly call it clean.
The future was plentiful, affordable, clean gas, McClendon said, wiping the coal dust from his hands.
It’s not so plentiful or affordable today.
Facing a shortage of natural gas, especially liquefied gas that can be moved around the world at sea, and wincing at record-high prices for the fuel, utilities and power generators worldwide are burning through their stockpiles of coal.
Not because it’s cleaner than gas, but because it’s available and cheaper. The growing global economic recovery from the COVID-19 pandemic has unleashed power demand beyond expectations. Certainly, beyond investments in new energy supplies.
Investors had turned away from coal, European nations shut down their coal-fired power plants, and coal consumption to generate electricity in the United States had been in a steady decline since reaching its peak in 2007.
Even China was cutting back on coal, in its push to show the world it, too, could reduce emissions and clean up its skies.
Then the energy crunch came this year. Liquefied natural gas shot past $35 per million BTU on the spot market in Asia and Europe. The same amount of energy from coal would cost half that price, or less, depending on the market.
U.S. natural gas prices are about double from a year ago, and coal consumption at U.S. power plants was up 35% in the first seven months of this year from 2020, according to data from the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
According to government data, coal stockpiles at U.S. power plants in August were at their lowest in at least 24 years. The volume stacked and stored to make electricity was down almost one-third from the start of the year.
Miners hadn’t planned on the resurgence in demand, and investors hadn’t been putting money into new production of the world’s dirtiest fossil fuel.
“Coal stocks for our customers are at critically low levels,” Joe Craft, CEO for Oklahoma-based Alliance Resource Partners, said during a conference call with investors and analysts on Oct. 25.
China recently ordered its coal mines to boost production to satisfy demand, after coal-to-gas switching to meet climate goals and safety inspections restricted a lot of the country’s production. The nation’s coal imports in September were the highest of the year. Even at that, some factories have had to cut back on production for lack of power.
China had planned to cut its coal use to 56% of its energy mix this year, according to the country’s National Energy Administration, down from around 68% a decade ago. But coal consumption is now going in the opposite direction. The U.K. banking giant Barclays said coal was back to 62% of China’s power generation in the first eight months of this year.
Though cheaper than natural gas, coal is still expensive this winter. Chinese coal prices have about doubled this year, hitting a record high on Oct. 19 of almost $310 a tonne on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange, though the price dropped back to about $200 a week later.
“China could see its worst winter power shortage since 2010,” Citigroup analyst Tracy Liao told Bloomberg News last month. The government has told top state-owned energy companies to make sure they have the fuel they need for winter, whatever the cost.
Even natural gas producers, such as French oil and gas major Total Energies, know the high prices for LNG cannot last.
“High pricing is not good news — of course immediately for my company results are better,” but for customers it’s not, TotalEnergies CEO Patrick Pouyanne said during a Russia Energy Week panel in Moscow last month.
Replacing coal with gas “is good for climate change,” but that works best when natural gas is affordable, Pouyanne said. “Coal today is a king, because coal is cheaper than all the other sources of energy.”
Bringing more gas to market is the answer to lowering the price and pushing coal aside, he said. “For us today, prices are too high. We have to find stability, going back to something more normal.”
But until “normal” returns, coal producers are enjoying better times. McClendon, who died in 2016, probably never expected coal — regardless of how much new technology could reduce its emissions — would come back as a power plant fuel option.
Vietnam announced last month it may double the amount of new coal-fired power generation it builds by 2030, as its growing economy needs affordable, reliable electricity.
India, where the government has been pushing hard to boost natural gas as a power plant fuel, still relies on coal for about 70% of its electricity generation. But with supply shortages from domestic mines and imports, government data last month showed that 80% of India’s 135 coal-powered plants had just a few days of coal supplies left. The average the past four years has been 18 days.
In the U.K., a half-century-old coal-fueled power plant, the West Burton A station, is scheduled to close next year. Until then, the polluter is fired up sparingly, but it ran several days in September to help satisfy the country’s demand for electricity.
Bloomberg’s chief energy correspondent reported last month that strong demand growth for energy is likely to push the combined consumption of coal, natural gas and oil to an all-time high by mid-2022.
“This is the revenge of the fossil fuels,” said Thierry Bros, an energy expert and professor at the Paris Institute of Political Studies.