Coal stockpiles are improving after being depleted by cold weather and rail problems last year.
Coal stockpiles increased by more than 12 million tons in October 2014, the largest build since 2011, reports the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA).
Stockpiles at electric power plants totaled 136 million tons at the end of October, lower than in recent years for that month, though showing signs of improvement from earlier in the year, says the administration. Stockpiles were greatly depleted last winter due to increased electricity demand and rail delivery problems, and have remained at lower levels due to continued congestion on the rail network. Deliveries were also curtailed by record grain harvests (up 13.4% this year) and higher shipments of petroleum and petroleum products (up 13% this year).
In order to combat continued rail congestion, coal plant operators, especially those in parts of the Midwest, have started moving coal by truck, purchasing electricity from the wholesale market and reducing output in order to manage stockpiles. Operators are hoping such conservation measures, milder weather this winter and increased deliveries by rail will return coal stockpiles to desired levels.
The EIA measures coal stockpiles in “days of burn,” or the number of days a coal-fired unit could run under normal conditions given the amount of coal currently stockpiled at the facility. The administration categorizes plants into three groups based off their days of burn: those with less than 30 days of burn, those with 30 to 60 days of burn and those with greater than 60 days of burn.
At the end of October 2014, about 45% of coal capacity had less than 60 days of burn and 8% had less than 30 days of burn. This is a large improvement from June, when more than 81% of coal capacity had less than 60 days of burn and 26% had less than 30 days of burn.
U.S. coal railcar loadings have remained near, or below, the five-year range throughout 2014. However, they have risen since late November compared to last year. Coal loadings were up 5.6% for the week ending November 29, up 13% for the week ending December 6 and were up 7.8% for the week ending December 13 compared to the same weeks in 2013. Loadings for the week ending December 13 were also the highest of 2014. Cumulatively, coal railcar loadings are 0.7% above 2013 levels through mid-December.
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