It comes down to costs and being bypassed by technological innovation, amid stagnating demand for electricity:
- Arrival of “combined cycle” natural gas power plants in the 1990s.
- Collapse in price of natural gas since 2008 due to fracking.
- Surging wind power production in TX, OK, KS, IA.
- Decades-long decline of industrial use of coal.
By Wolf Richter for WOLF STREET:
Consumption of coal by US power plants in April plunged 30% from April last year, to the lowest level in the monthly data going back to 1973, the EIA reported today. This was down 19% from April 1973.
A process of many years: Peak monthly consumption of coal by US power plants occurred from 2003 through 2008 when during the hot summer months (air conditioning) caused coal consumption to rise to 95-99 million short tons. In 2019, the peak month was July, when coal consumption by power plants was down to 56 million short tons. And this year, given the relentless trend over the past 12 years, July consumption will be lower still:
“King coal,” as it was called in the 1990s when it was still the dominant fuel for power plants, was heavily wounded by a technological innovation, the Combined Cycle Gas Turbine power plant, commercialized in the 1990s.
A CCGT power plant uses natural gas to fuel a combustion turbine, similar to a turbine in a jet aircraft. It then uses the hot exhaust gases to heat water into high-pressure steam that drives a steam turbine. Both turbines drive generators to generate electricity. The thermal efficiency of a CCGT plant has reached about 65%.
Coal power plants just create high pressure steam that drives a steam turbine. At the time, their thermal efficiency was below 40%. The rest was waste heat.
But retiring old coal-fired power plants and replacing them with CCGT plants was a gradual process, and CCGT plants only gradually made measurable inroads into the overall power generation portfolio. Increasing electricity consumption until 2008 covered up the market share losses of coal that started in the 1990s.
Then in 2008, the wide commercialization of fracking for natural gas caused production of natural gas in the US to surge, and the price to collapse, reaching multi-decade lows in recent years, currently in the range of $1.70 per million Btu – compared to the $2.20-range in the late 1990s and the $4-$8-range from 2000 to 2008.
Coal had to compete with a much more efficient technology (the CCGT plant) and the collapsed price of natural gas. This was when the coal miners began filing for bankruptcy, one after the other, and several filed twice.
Then, more recently, wind power became competitive with coal. For wind power, the “fuel” is free, unlike coal. There are no transportation costs involved in getting the “fuel” to a wind turbine, unlike coal which is hauled by rail often over long distances. What they have in common is that both have capital costs associated with building the plant and equipment and expenses associated with running and maintaining the plant and equipment.
Texas, Oklahoma, Iowa, and Kansas were the four states with the most electricity generation from wind in 2019, according to the EIA. These four states combined accounted for over 50% of total US electricity generation from wind in 2019. Texas produced about as much as the other three combined. In distant fifth place was California.
And the power plants of choice to back renewables are natural-gas-fired because they can ramp up power generation very rapidly, when needed.
Industrial consumption of coal on multi-decade decline.
Coal consumption by coke plants and other industrial users has been relatively stable over the past 12 months, declining in April by just 1% year-over-year, but March and April, at 3.8 million short tons each, were down by 74% from the same months in 1973. Industrial use of coal accounted for 32% of total coal consumption in 1973. In April, industrial use was down to 14% of total coal consumption.
Exports of coal remain in the same four-decade range.
Exporting coal has been the one remaining hope, but in 2019, coal exports fell to 92 million short tons for the entire year (by comparison, total US consumption in 2019 was 587 million short tons). The peak year for exports was 2012, at 126 million short tons. The second highest year was 1981, at 113 million short tons. In other words, coal exports, though they vary widely from year to year, have been in the same range since the early 1980s.
Stagnating electricity consumption since 2008.
Then there is the additional issue that all power generators face, from wind to coal: Generating and selling electricity in the US has been a stagnating business at best since 2008 despite population growth and economic growth, as efficiencies of electrical equipment from light bulbs to residential and commercial air conditioners have vastly improved:
Utilities have been hoping for years that large-scale adoption of EVs in the US will finally cause electricity consumption – and thereby revenues for utilities — to increase. Utilities have another reason to pray for EVs: Many people would charge them up at night in their garages, when electricity consumption is very low, and utilities would make money off their otherwise idle capacity. But so far, this mass-arrival of EVs hasn’t happened yet, and utilities are still left hoping. And when or if this flood of EVs does arrive, it won’t be coal that will fill in that incremental demand, but the cheaper sources of power now available.
There’s Just No Good Way Out. Read… Brick & Mortar Retailers, Malls, Mall-REITs, and their Debts: The Whole Schmear is Coming Apart
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