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Coal stockpiles down at US power plants

World Coal,

Stockpiles of coal at coal-fired power plants in the US are smaller than in recent years, according to a report from the US Energy Information Administration (EIA).

The EIA said that coal stocks at electric power plants, which totalled 121 million t at the end of August, are relatively low in both absolute and days of burn terms relative to recent historical norms.

The trend is found across the US and in the Upper Midwest, while four small plants in Minnesota have shut down to conserve coal stocks.

The EIA noted that the harsh winter last year saw plants in the Upper Midwest operate at very high rates, burning lots of coal. As plants rebuild their stockpiles, many operators are now asking for shipments of coal well above the levels they received in 2013.

However, issues with railway shipments and deliveries are making it difficult to transport large volumes of coal and rebuild stockpiles at power plants.

Railroads faced weather-related problems last winter that curtailed deliveries. This year railroads have had to accommodate record grain harvests (up 16% this year) and increasing amounts of petroleum and petroleum products shipments (up 13% this year) vying for space on railroad networks. Total US rail traffic has increased for every commodity type tracked by the Association of American Railroads, and year-to-date traffic (through mid-October) is 4.5% higher compared with the same period last year.

In words of encouragement, the EIA stressed that the role of railways and the challenges facing them “should not be overstated”.

“Despite the problems on the rail system, particularly in the Upper Midwest, coal car loadings year to date through October 25 were up slightly from last year (0.3%). Loadings have been on an upward trend in recent weeks: during four weeks in October, coal car loadings averaged 4.7% higher than the comparable weeks in 2013,” the EIA said.

The EIA noted that there have been reductions in operating levels (utilisation rates) at plants in several other states as a result of concerns about coal availability. Operators have substituted higher-cost power from other sources, such as natural gas-fired generation, to make up the difference. In addition, some power plants have increased their purchases of coal moved by truck to their power plants, at significantly higher cost compared to usual rail shipments.

Edited by Sam Dodson

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