* Utilities switched from coal to cheap gas in 2012
* November coal stocks over year-ago and 5-year average
* As gas prices rise, coal stocks expected to decline
Jan 25 Increased competition between coal and
natural gas, as well as a warm 2011-12 winter, led to lower
consumption of coal and higher coal stockpiles at U.S. power
plants through November 2012, according to federal energy data
Coal stockpiles in November were above the levels of 2011
and higher than the five-year average for an eleventh straight
month, the Energy Information Administration (EIA) said in a
But with gas prices expected to rise in 2013, EIA forecast
coal used to generate power will climb to about 39 percent from
nearly 38 percent in 2012, and reach almost 40 percent in 2014.
That is well below where coal was a decade ago. Coal
produced more than half of the nation's power as recently as
EIA forecast the share of generation fueled by gas in 2013
will be about 28 percent, down from 2012's average of about 30
percent, and will slip further to about 27.5 percent in 2014.
Coal stockpiles typically decline during summer and winter
as power plants burn through stocks to meet peak electric demand
for heating and cooling.
Historically low natural gas prices pushed generators to
burn more gas and less coal during the spring and summer of
2012, while a warmer-than-normal 2011-12 winter decreased the
overall heating load for that season, EIA said.
Since most coal at electric power plants is purchased
through long-term contracts, utilities are rarely able to defer
purchases. This leads to higher and higher coal stockpiles,
until increased coal use draws down inventories.
The high stockpiles forced some generators to burn coal
instead of gas even when it was not economic to do so to avoid
having to pay railroads to stop delivering the coal, energy
analysts have said.
EIA said days of burn, which estimates how many days a
stockpile of coal will last, during 2012 were above the levels
seen since 2008, reflecting lower utilization rates for
In early 2012, days of burn got close to a 90-day supply of
coal before pulling back.
DAYS OF BURN
In November 2012, EIA said, the number of days of burn for
bituminous coal eased to 80 days (or 83.2 million tons) from 85
days in October. For subbituminous coal, the days of burn slid
from 73 days in October to 70 days (or 88.2 million tons) in
November. That compared with 66 days for bituminous coal and 59
days for subbituminous coal in November 2011.
Bituminous coal, a harder coal with a higher heat rate and
usually more sulfur content, generally is mined in eastern U.S.
states like West Virginia. Subbituminous coal, a softer coal
with a lower heat rate and less sulfur, is generally mined in
the western states like Wyoming.
Electric utilities often try to maintain a 60-day supply of
coal on hand to avoid tying up operating capital in fuel stocks,
Because long-term contracts often have penalties associated
with deferring shipments of coal, power plants are faced with
few options other than continuing to accept deliveries.
As the long-term contracts for coal purchases expire,
however, electric utilities may choose to lower future
purchases, given the high inventory levels.
The biggest coal-fired power generators in the United States
include American Electric Power Co Inc, Duke Energy Corp
, Southern Co, Xcel Energy Inc,
FirstEnergy Inc and Great Plains Energy Corp.