By Tsvetana Paraskova
December 3 2021 - While the U.S. Administration is pushing its green energy agenda and wants to decarbonize the power grid by 2035, coal is making a comeback this year as high natural gas prices incentivize more coal use in electricity generation.
This could be coal's last hurrah, as the fossil fuel is still set for a continuous decline over the medium and long term, analysts say, amid the global push toward clean energy and the ESG trend that restricts investment and access to finance in the coal industry.
Still, U.S. coal miners, who have already benefited from rising demand from utilities this year, are in for at least another year of strong sales and cash flows as the much higher natural gas prices this year compared to 2020 are making more power generators switch to coal.
Annual U.S. coal-fired electricity generation is set to rise this year for the first time since 2014, and the share of coal in America's power generation mix is set to rise to 23 percent in 2021 from 20 percent in 2020 as electricity demand rebounds and the delivered natural gas price for electricity generators more than doubles, according to EIA estimates.
Coal Demand Is Rising Amid High Natural Gas Prices
Rising demand for coal and muted supply response have depleted U.S. coal stocks to their lowest levels since the early 1970s. As utilities scrambled to secure supply ahead of the winter, coal prices in the United States were estimated to have hit last month the highest level since 2009.
The rise of coal this year also highlights a key challenge ahead for the green energy transition: a shift to cleaner energy will not happen overnight and keeping the lights on in America still needs a lot of coal and natural gas, regardless of the U.S. Administration's long-term policies.
The U.S. still gets over 60 percent of its electricity generation from fossil fuels, 40 percent of which was natural gas and 20 percent coal in 2020.
This year, the EIA estimates the share of gas dropping to an average of 36 percent from 39 percent last year, but coal's share rising by 3 percentage points to 23 percent. The share of renewables, including hydropower, is expected to remain basically flat on the year at 20 percent, EIA's latest Short-Term Energy Outlook showed.
U.S. Coal Stocks Lowest Since the 1970s
"U.S. coal production growth has not kept pace with rising domestic demand for steam coal in the electric power sector and export growth, leading to a draw down in coal inventories held by the electric power sector," the EIA said in the STEO in November.
Coal inventories at utilities stood in August 2021 at lowest levels since the early 1970s, according to EIA data in its latest Monthly Energy Review.
Stocks are now some two-thirds of the five-year average for this time of year, The Wall Street Journal points out.
In view of the lowest coal stocks in decades, PJM Interconnection, which coordinates wholesale electricity in all or parts of 13 states and the District of Columbia and serves a fifth of U.S. residents, said in October that until April 1, 2022, it could ask coal-fired plants to conserve stocks and curb operations if their respective remaining resources fall below 10 days worth of supply.
"This would only be implemented to address concerns with local or regional reliability," PJM said.
"Christmas Has Come Early" For U.S. Coal Miners
Rising coal demand and the highest coal prices in more than a decade are boosting the profitability of the large U.S. coal miners, which sell their production in advance and are now looking to lock in higher prices for the next two years in negotiations with utilities.
"I'm reminded of that line, which goes who says Christmas, can't come a little early. We are now three quarters through having our best year financial and operational performance since we went public," Randy Atkins, CEO at Ramaco Resources, said on the Q3 earnings call last month.
The U.S. coal industry is almost sold out for 2022 as high natural gas prices have incentivized more coal-fired generation this year.
The outlook of many U.S. coal miners for 2022 and 2023 is positive, although long-term uncertainty over the role of coal is only rising.
"The reality is, there's just been very limited investment in new coal production really everywhere domestically and as well as internationally. And as a result, there is a bit of a scramble right now as generators look to find additional volumes with gas prices, as higher as they are at around $5," Deck Slone, Senior Vice President, Strategy at Arch, said at the end of October.
"Business conditions in the Powder River Basin are temporarily strong on a variety of factors including high natural gas pricing in regions that consume PRB coal that encourages gas-to-coal switching by power generators and various logistical issues present across the region that limits the coal industry's ability to produce and deliver coal," Moody's said in early November when it revised the rating outlook on Arch Resources to positive from stable.
Coal Still On Track For Long-Term Decline
Despite the generally bullish outlook for U.S. coal through 2023, the industry is still set for a decline in the long term due to the push for more renewable energy generation and the ESG investment community shunning fossil fuels, especially coal.
"Moody's believes that investor concerns about the coal industry's ESG profile are still intensifying and, notwithstanding current strength in coal pricing and better debt trading levels, coal producers will be increasingly challenged by access to capital issues in the early-to-mid 2020s," the rating agency noted.
"Looking forward, the Biden administration's domestic energy policy agenda, combined with ESG obsessions in Europe and the United States, will most likely continue to restrict growth in fossil fuel production. Absent any significant global demand destruction, we expect fossil fuel prices will remain at elevated levels through next year and into 2023," Alliance Resource's CEO Joe Craft said on the Q3 call.
This year's rise in coal power generation in the U.S. is unlikely to continue, with generation from coal plants next year expected down by 5 percent from 2021 due to continuing retirements of coal capacity and slightly lower natural gas prices, the EIA says.