U.S. Power Plants Short On Coal; Utilities Scrambling With Cold Temps Ahead

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By Jimmy Orr, Cowboy State Daily

The price for Wyoming’s coal is rising in the face of low supplies at power plants across the country, rising natural gas prices and predictions of cold temperatures in the near future.

Despite efforts by some political leaders to halt the use of coal as an energy source, energy producers are turning to the fuel in increasing numbers this year, only to find it in short supply.

But coal supplies at U.S. power plants have dropped to levels not seen since the 1970s and acquiring the resource has sent prices soaring. And even acquiring coal is proving to be a challenge because of supply chain issues that every industry is experiencing.

None of this is a surprise to Travis Deti, the executive director of the Wyoming Mining Association.

“We’ve been screaming from the rooftops for the last 10 years that America needs coal and that you can’t throw all of your eggs in one energy basket,” Travis told Cowboy State Daily on Tuesday.

“(Natural) gas prices were never going to stay below $2.00 (per 1,000 cubic feet) forever. Gas is at about $4.60 and some analysts are predicting it to be over $7.00 in the winter,” he said.

The problem is that coal is sold in advance of when it is needed and because of the push to move away from coal as a power source, the resource has lost market share, leaving suppliers unprepared to meet this year’s demand.

Getting coal back on the table as a fuel is easier said than done.  As Deti explained, the problem does not lie in a shortage of coal, but in producing the necessary amounts to meet that demand. After adjusting to lower production levels, coal producers require manpower to boost production again.

“Ever since the decline started to happen a decade ago,  we said you need to keep coal in the mix.  You gotta keep it in the mix,” Deti said.

Coal is the one resource, he said, that is “always affordable, always reliable, and always abundant.”

“As for reliability, coal-fired power is going to be there when you turn on the light switch,” he said. “Unlike the renewables which we saw, fatally, in Texas last winter.”

The Wall Street Journal reports that coal supplies have become so low in some areas of the country that one power company that serves one-fifth of the U.S. population is reserving coal for use during the coldest days this winter.

The high price for coal is a good thing for Wyoming, especially if mines can get it out of the ground.

However, there’s a shortage of workers. Deti said mines in the Powder River Basin could use an extra 200 miners right now, as well as more trains to move the coal.

“You’ve got companies up in the basin right now that are offering $5,000 signing bonuses just to come on board,” he said. 

Deti said the short-term prospects for coal is good.

“The basin is sold-out for 2022,” he said. “They are selling into 2023. We are going to have a couple pretty good years.”

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