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Last Updated: September 2, 2020
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Coal-fired electricity generating capacity in the United States is retiring, as tighter air emission standards and decreased cost-competitiveness relative to other power resources make coal-fired power plants less economical. From 2011 to mid-2020, 95 gigawatts (GW) of coal capacity was closed or switched to another fuel and another 25 GW is slated to shut down by 2025, based on information power plant operators reported to the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA). The closures will decrease the capacity of the U.S. coal fleet to less than 200 GW, more than one-third lower than its peak of 314 GW in 2011. As the coal-fired fleet is retired and remaining plants are utilized less, plant owners are evaluating new operating models, such as seasonal operation.

Although the U.S. coal-fired power plant fleet is downsizing, coal-fired plants are still an important resource to meet electricity demand, especially during peak periods. This factor was evident during the heat wave that gripped most of the United States during July and August 2020. Data from EIA’s Hourly Electric Grid Monitor show that output from coal-fired generating plants reached an hourly dispatch of 161.5 GW on July 27, 2020. Of the electricity generated on July 27 in the Lower 48 states, 24% was coal-fired. Only natural gas-fired sources held a higher share at 45%.

daily range of hourly electricity generation from coal, Lower 48 states

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Hourly Electric Grid Monitor

The coal power plant fleet is used much less during electricity’s shoulder months of spring (March, April, and May) and fall (September, October, and November). During the winter and summer months, the coal fleet operates at an average capacity factor, or utilization rate, of more than 60%. However, in the spring and fall, the average capacity factor has been less than 50%.

Seasonal differences in capacity factor have become more pronounced during the past two years, largely because coal has been displaced by cheaper generation from natural gas and renewable energy during the shoulder months. In April and May 2020, the coal fleet operated less than 30% of the time. As a result, coal plants sometimes assert that they are unable to operate for enough hours to produce enough annual revenue to cover costs.

U.S. coal-fired electricity generating fleet average monthly capacity factor

Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electric Power Monthly

In an effort to improve the economics of coal plants, owners are evaluating plans to run plants on a seasonal basis, when electricity demand allows for steadier operation. Under these plans, coal plants would only operate during periods of higher electricity demand, from December to February (winter) and from June to August (summer). The expectation is that completely shutting down plants when electricity demand is low will limit financial losses.

So far in 2020, four large coal-fired plants announced plans to operate on a seasonal basis. Two of the plants, totaling 1,193 megawatts (MW), are in Minnesota. The other two are a 793 MW plant in Arizona and a 645 MW plant in Louisiana. The two units in Minnesota will run during the summer and winter. The plants in Arizona and Louisiana will only operate during summer because they are located in warmer climes.

Whether or not seasonal operation sufficiently improves the economics of coal plants remains to be seen. In 2018, owners of a plant in Wisconsin and a plant in Texas switched to seasonal operation. However, the practice lasted for less than a year because both facilities were completely shut down shortly thereafter.

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Saudi Aramco Moves Into Russia’s Backyard

International expansions for Saudi Aramco – the largest oil company in the world – are not uncommon. But up to this point, those expansions have followed a certain logic: to create entrenched demand for Saudi crude in the world’s largest consuming markets. But Saudi champion’s latest expansion move defies, or perhaps, changes that logic, as Aramco returns to Europe. And not just any part of Europe, but Eastern Europe – an area of the world dominated by Russia – as Saudi Aramco acquires downstream assets from Poland’s PKN Orlen and signs quite a significant crude supply deal. How is this important? Let us examine.

First, the deal itself and its history. As part of the current Polish government’s plan to strengthen its national ‘crown jewels’ in line with its more nationalistic stance, state energy firm PKN Orlen announced plans to purchase its fellow Polish rival (and also state-owned) Grupa Lotos. The outright purchase fell afoul of EU anti-competition rules, which meant that PKN Orlen had to divest some Lotos assets in order to win approval of the deal. Some of the Lotos assets – including 417 fuel stations – are being sold to Hungary’s MOL, which will also sign a long-term fuel supply agreement with PKN Orlen for the newly-acquired sites, while PKN Orlen will gain fuel retail assets in Hungary and Slovakia as part of the deal. But, more interestingly, PKN Orlen has chosen to sell a 30% stake in the Lotos Gdansk refinery in Poland (with a crude processing capacity of 210,000 bd) to Saudi Aramco, alongside a stake in a fuel logistic subsidiary and jet fuel joint venture supply arrangement between Lotos and BP. In return, PKN Orlen will also sign a long-term contract to purchase between 200,000-337,000 b/d of crude from Aramco, which is an addition to the current contract for 100,000 b/d of Saudi crude that already exists. At a maximum, that figure will cover more than half of Poland’s crude oil requirements, but PKN Orlen has also said that it plans to direct some of that new supply to several of its other refineries elsewhere in Lithuania and the Czech Republic.

For Saudi Aramco, this is very interesting. While Aramco has always been a presence in Europe as a major crude supplier, its expansion plans over the past decade have been focused elsewhere. In the US, where it acquired full ownership of the Motiva joint venture from Shell in 2017. In doing so, it acquired control of Port Arthur, the largest refinery in North America, and has been on a petrochemicals-focused expansion since. In Asia, where Aramco has been busy creating significant nodes for its crude – in China, in India and in Malaysia (to serve the Southeast Asia and facilitate trade). And at home, where the focus has on expanding refining and petrochemical capacity, and strengthen its natural gas position. So this expansion in Europe – a mature market with a low ceiling for growth, even in Eastern Europe, is interesting. Why Poland, and not East or southern Africa? The answer seems fairly obvious: Russia.

The current era of relatively peaceful cooperation between Saudi Arabia and Russia in the oil sphere is recent. Very recent. It was not too long ago that Saudi Arabia and Russia were locked in a crude price war, which had devastating consequences, and ultimately led to the détente through OPEC+ that presaged an unprecedented supply control deal. That was through necessity, as the world faced the far ranging impact of the Covid-19 pandemic. But remove that lens of cooperation, and Saudi Arabia and Russia are actual rivals. With the current supply easing strategy through OPEC+ gradually coming to an end, this could remove the need for the that club (by say 2H 2022). And with Russia not being part of OPEC itself – where Saudi Arabia is the kingpin – cooperation is no longer necessary once the world returns to normality.

So the Polish deal is canny. In a statement, Aramco stated that ‘the investments will widen (our) presence in the European downstream sector and further expand (our) crude imports into Poland, which aligns with PKN Orlen’s strategy of diversifying its energy supplies’. Which hints at the other geopolitical aspect in play. Europe’s major reliance on Russia for its crude and natural gas has been a minefield – see the recent price chaos in the European natural gas markets – and countries that were formally under the Soviet sphere of influence have been trying to wean themselves off reliance from a politically unpredictable neighbour. Poland’s current disillusion with EU membership (at least from the ruling party) are well-documented, but its entanglement with Russia is existential. The Cold War is not more than 30 years gone.

For Saudi Aramco, the move aligns with its desire to optimise export sales from its Red Sea-facing terminals Yanbu, Jeddah, Shuqaiq and Rabigh, which have closer access to Europe through the Suez Canal. It is for the same reason that Aramco’s trading subsidiary ATC recently signed a deal with German refiner/trader Klesch Group for a 3-year supply of 110,000 b/d crude. It would seem that Saudi Arabia is anticipating an eventual end to the OPEC+ era of cooperative and a return to rivalry. And in a rivalry, that means having to make power moves. The PKN Orlen deal is a power move, since it brings Aramco squarely in Russia’s backyard, directly displacing Russian market share. Not just in Poland, but in other markets as well. And with a geopolitical situation that is fragile – see the recent tensions about Russian military build-up at the Ukrainian borders – that plays into Aramco’s hands. European sales make up only a fraction of the daily flotilla of Saudi crude to enters international markets, but even though European consumption is in structural decline, there are still volumes required.

How will Russia react? Politically, it is on the backfoot, but its entrenched positions in Europe allows it to hold plenty of sway. European reservations about the Putin administration and climate change goals do not detract from commercial reality that Europe needs energy now. The debate of the Nord Stream 2 pipeline is proof of that. Russian crude freed up from being directed to Eastern Europe means a surplus to sell elsewhere. Which means that Russia will be looking at deals with other countries and refiners, possibly in markets with Aramco is dominant. That level of tension won’t be seen for a while – these deals takes months and years to complete – but we can certainly expect that agitation to be reflected in upcoming OPEC+ discussions. The club recently endorsed another expected 400,000 b/d of supply easing for January. Reading the tea leaves – of which the PKN Orlen is one – makes it sound like there will not be much more cooperation beyond April, once the supply deal is anticipated to end.

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Market Outlook:

-       Crude price trading range: Brent – US$86-88/b, WTI – US$84-86/b

-       Crude oil benchmarks globally continue their gain streak for a fifth week, as the market bounces back from the lows seen in early December as the threat of the Omicron virus variant fades and signs point to tightening balances on strong consumption

-       This could set the stage for US$100/b oil by midyear – as predicted by several key analysts – as consumption rebounds ahead of summer travel and OPEC+ remains locked into its gradual consumption easing schedule 

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