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Rebalancing On US Coal Continues

|About: ON Semiconductor Corporation (ON), Includes: ARLP, BKH, BTU, CLD, KOL, NC, PCXCQ, SO, UNG, WLB, WLT

I am bullish in coal. I pointed out that the coal and natural gas (NYSEARCA:UNG) industry is quick to rebalance supply and demand under adverse market conditions. EIA data clearly indicates the rebalancing of the coal and natural gas (NG in brief) sectors.

I will discuss the data on coal and natural gas separately. This one is on coal. Another article, "Rebalancing On Natural Gas", is on NG.

The EIA and FERC have mountains of data on US energy markets. But monthly data on coal and natural gas comes out a few months late. I could get more fresh data by analyzing the weekly data.

Please read my instablog post for explanation of data sources, basic concepts in analyzing the energy markets, and my data analysis techniques. I present just the results and conclusions here.

Basics in understanding natural gas, coal and electricity

You need to know some basics to understand energy data. I will discuss them in details in an instablog post.

  • US Coal fired electricity generation capacity is 319.186GW.
  • US Natural gas power generation capacity is 438.727GW.
  • Capacity factor: If the capacity is utilized 100%, electricity generated equals capacity times hours. The Capacity factor is obtained by dividing the monthly electricity generated, by the capacity and by the hours. It indicates how much the utilities pushed their generation capacity limits.
  • Fuel efficiency: I calculated fuel efficiencies using EIA data. Read details. Conversion factors are:
  • 1 ton (coal) = 1.859 MWH (electricity)
  • 1 mmBtu (NYSEMKT:NG) = 0.129 MWH (electricity)
  • 1 ton of coal = 14.41 mmBtu for power generation.
  • 1 KWH = 0.538M tons of coal = 7.752 BCF of NG
  • A fuel energy calculator is handy

US coal is mostly (92.58% in 2011) used for electricity generation.

In 2011, supply of NG was 23000 (in BCF, billion cubic feet) in dry production and 1948 in net imports, total 24,948. The NG demands in 2011 were diversified:

2069 BCF spent in plants and pipelines
22300 BCF delivered to end users:
  • 7896 for commercial and residential usage:
  • 6802 for industrial and vehicles;
  • And 7602 for power generation.
So NG power demand was only 34% of all NG demands.

In last winter, over-production from shale gas wells combined with demand-damping by warm weather caused natural gas spot price to drop to $1.90/mmBtu on April 19 of 2012, depressing coal prices as well. NG price has recovered to $2.70/mmBtu now.

But coal prices so far have not followed the NG rally. I claimed that the coal and natural sector is inherently cyclic since the supplies and demands are quickly rebalanced. When can we expect coal prices to rebound? Let's study the market data to find out.

Massive coal production curtailments

EIA weekly coal production reports indicate big production cuts:

The cuts reached 47.70M tons by May 19, 2012. Total production cuts in 2012 could reach 160M tons. That is bigger than the 100M tons of estimated reduction of domestic coal demands.

Are the cuts big enough so far? Why natural gas rallied without significant supply drop, but coal hasn't rallied despite of the massive production cuts? How much coal demands were taken away by the weather, and by natural gas?

How big was the fuel switching from coal to natural gas?

It is widely suggested that power plants switched from coal to NG in generating electricity. There were incentives to switch fuel, since natural gas price was cheaper. For example, southern Company (NYSE:SO) reported that they run their NG turbines to 70% capacity factor.

Coal is burned in coal power units and NG in NG power units. So to USE more NG and less coal, utilities must install new NG units and retire some old coal units. Or they can run NG units more often, resulting in higher NG capacity factors.

Installing new NG generators is expensive. Knowing that NG prices are historically volatile, utilities would hesitate to invest money until they are convinced that low NG prices will stay.

If utilities run their NG units more, the capacitor factors must go up. The first two months have 60x24= 1440 hours. Electricity from NG was 182,678 GWH. Divide it by 438.727GW of NG capacity and then by 1440 hours, the NG capacity factor was 28.9%. That was way belong the 70% NG capacity factor reported by SO. It showed that most utility companies did not run the full potential of NG units.

In contrast, utilities run their coal units to 54.35% capacity factor in January, based on my calculation. That was almost twice the NG capacitor factor. It shows that power companies are not motivated to burn less coal and more NG. Some fuel switching occurred, as the power companies did consume more NG and less coal. But I think it was not a massive fuel switching as Paulo Santos claimed.

In the other article, I will discuss how NG demands were affected by the warm winter and how the demands were recovering. This chart showing how NG power demand gained during the winter, but the gap of demand gain narrowed as summer arrived:

Here are the NG numbers. Read the other article for discussions:

How Much Coal Demands Were Taken Away

My data of coal supply/demand in the first 5 months of 2012 is summarized in the table below:

All monthly numbers are scaled to 30 day months for uniformity. The May numbers were projected using partial data available.

On domestic coal supply: Production dropped 41.098M tons from last year; exports increased by 8.660M tons. So supply removed was 49.758M tons by May 2012. The net exports increased remarkably starting in March (E5). I expect much higher export increases later.

On coal demands: Electricity from coal lost 116316 GWH from a year ago. The demand loss was attributed to:

  • 49941 GWH of decreased total electricity generation. (42.9%)
  • 93563 GWH of increased NG electricity generation. (80.4%)
  • 27187 GWH of decreased other source generations. (-23.3%)

The loss in coal demands amount to 116.316 * 0.538 = 62.58M tons. The cut in supply is 49.76M tons so far. A gap of 13M tons remains.

But the tide is turning. In May, the coal supply cut is 11.165M tons. The demand drop is only 2825 GWH, or worth 1.52M tons of coal. The difference is 9.645M tons per month. I expect that next month we will return to the coal stockpile level at the end of last year:

In the coal stockpile chart above, data up to March was from EIA, the extension to May was based on my calculations.

Booming International Demands on US Coal

China's coal imports in the first four month of 2012 increased 69.6% to 86.55M tons, with 15.88M tons from the US. A Chinese trader commented that 6400 KCal energy grade US coal was priced at Y600/ton delivered to Chinese ports, while Chinese coal of 5500 KCal was asking for Y780/ton. (US$1.00 = Y6.30) The winner is clear. Coal specialist Huang Teng believed that total US coal exports this year could reach 200M tons! The report projected a +140% increase of US coal exports to China in 2012.

US coal export increases already showed up in March data. Exports in the first three months were: 9.1M, 8.5M and 11.0 M tons.

China imports most of its coal from Indonesia, Australia and Vietnam.

Vietnam started to import coal from Australia and Indonesia. It plans to become a net coal importer by 2015.

Australia could not meet demands from Japan, India, Korea and the whole world while keep selling more coal to China.

So China's coal import increase mostly came from low quality cheap Indonesia coal. China could get away with importing more coal from Indonesia, a nation with only 0.6% of the world's coal reserve, only thanks to India' government's feet-dragging on coal imports from Indonesia, and to rampant illegal mining in Indonesia.

Both Indo governments will come to their senses. India will speed up the imports as its industry needs coal. Indonesia has vowed to crack down on illegal mining and impose hefty taxes to preserve its natural resources. China will have to look else where for coal: the USA.

The Overall Electricity Demand Has Recovered

The FERC data shows that overall electricity demand has recovered from the weak winter to above the five-year average:

The electricity generation was significantly below average during the winter. But starting in late April it went above average by roughly 5000 GWH per week. That translates to about 2.68M tons of extra coal demand per week.

The Data Tells Us Coal Is Bullish

In summary of the discussions, all the factors that caused weaker demands in both coal and natural gas, and caused some utilities to switch fuel to natural gas, have disappeared or are going away: Warm winter; weak residential/commercial demand; over-production of natural gas; attractive NG prices versus coal. All are going away. The NG power demand is going back to the main peak in the chart.

But all coal bullish factors remain: Higher coal exports are coming; Natural gas production decline slowly shows up and the price rally forces utilities to switch back to coal; Coal producers continue to curtail coal productions; Shorts in coal stocks still haven't covered.

NG production is also cut. The supply of NG is still higher by 2.7%. It is declining slowly at 8% annual rate. NG rallied first because of the visibility of NG weekly storage numbers. The coal rally was delayed because people have not noticed the scale of coal production cuts, the recovery of total electricity demands, and that the coal-to-NG fuel switching is disappearing.

But I believe market fundamentals will always play out, whether people realize them or not. A coal rally will follow NG very soon.

Coal stocks like Patriot Coal (PCX) that I recommended continued to drop, suggesting that the world must be ending in 2012. Perhaps the CEOs of James River Coal Company (JRCC) and PCX were getting lots of calls from worried shareholders asking whether they are preparing for bankruptcy. Same pessimism existed in coal in August of 2007. We knew what happened then.

Theoretically any coal companies can bankrupt if depressed coal prices drag on indefinitely. But based on history, and based on supply/demand characteristics of the coal sector, this industry never stays low for long. It always bounces back fiercely. I urge people to use data, facts and rationality to guide their investments, not greed and fear. I continue to recommend these great values:

  • James River Coal Company [JRCC]
  • Patriot Coal [PCX]
  • Arch Coal Inc. (NYSE:ACI)
  • Cloud Peak Energy (NYSE:CLD)
  • Alpha Natural Resources (ANR)
  • Consol Energy (NYSE:CNX)
  • Black Hills Corp. (NYSE:BKH)
  • Walter Energy (NYSE:WLT)
  • Westmoreland Coal (NASDAQ:WLB)
  • Peabody Energy (NYSE:BTU)
  • Nacco Industries (NYSE:NC)
  • Alliance Resource Partners LP (NASDAQ:ARLP)
  • Market Vectors Coal ETF (NYSEARCA:KOL)

I am buying more coal stocks.

Disclosure: I am long JRCC, PCX, ACI, ANR, BTU.