Navigant Research Blog

As Rail Congestion Crimps Coal Supplies, Calls for Expansion Grow Louder

— October 27, 2014

Even as power plant operators are warning of coal supply shortages come winter, the U.S. government has predicted that congestion on the nation’s railways is likely to get much worse in coming years.

Increased freight traffic traveling by rail – particularly crude oil from the Great Plains and grain from a bumper crop this year – has led to significant bottlenecks across the railway network, the Government Accountability Office (GAO) said in a report issued in September.  Rail traffic has reached the levels last seen in 2007, before the global recession, and “recent trends in freight flows, if they continue as expected, may exacerbate congestion issues in communities, particularly along certain corridors,” the GAO concluded.

Sounding a more dire warning, Hunter Harrison, the CEO of Canadian Pacific, said during a recent analyst briefing that the entire North American railway system is headed toward a cliff.  “We’re quickly approaching a time where none of this works,” Harrison said, according to the Financial Times.  “We cannot continue to go down the road that we’re going down and be successful and not have gridlock beyond anything we’ve experienced before.”

On to Chicago, Slowly

Like a slow train spotted in the distance, this fall’s tie-up of train traffic has been anticipated for years.  The domestic oil & gas boom, centered in the Bakken formation in North Dakota, has had ripple effects across the upper Midwest, the Rocky Mountains, and the Pacific Northwest.  Chicago, where all seven of the Class I railroad companies have major yards, is one of the biggest bottlenecks.  Rail transport is relatively low-cost and emits less CO2 than shipping by plane or truck, but investment in rail infrastructure has been slow.  Producers and consumers of coal, in particular, have traditionally been trapped in exclusive contracts that give them little leverage in negotiations with rail providers.  In September, Democratic Senator Jay Rockefeller of West Virginia introduced the Surface Transportation Board Reauthorization Act, which would increase the authority of the Surface Transportation Board, which regulates railroads, to force them to remedy service delays and justify rate hikes.  Lawmakers chided rail executives at a September 10 hearing in Washington for their failure to anticipate and keep up with increased demands on the railway system.

The problem is especially acute for mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin trying to ship coal to customers.  Big coal-burning utilities have already begun running coal plants at below capacity in order to conserve coal stocks.

Ship Gas, Not Coal

Some of this alarm is likely overstated; no one has suggested that coal plants are actually in danger of running out of fuel this winter.  And despite the transport constriction, the price of Powder River Basin coal remains stubbornly low; the price of a ton has dropped 8%, to $10.80, according to Bloomberg.  As a matter of national policy, it makes sense to reduce shipments of dirty coal by diesel-burning trains to supply aging power plants that are quickly becoming uneconomical anyway.  Meanwhile, tight coal supplies will inevitably lead to louder calls for other types of energy transport infrastructure: namely, natural gas pipelines.

There are good reasons to invest in expanding the nation’s railway infrastructure; shipping more coal is probably not one of them.

 

Automation Gives Manufacturers an Energy Boost

— October 17, 2014

According to the U.S. Manufacturing Purchasing Managers’ Index, a measure developed by financial research firm Markit, manufacturing activity in the United States in September reached its highest point in more than 4 years.  Factory employment, though still well below pre-2008 levels, reached its highest level since March 2012.

U.S. manufacturers are getting a boost from low energy costs, driven primarily by the bonanza of low-cost natural gas (and, to a lesser extent, by distributed renewables, often onsite at plants).  But what’s going on inside U.S. plants is equally important.  Increased energy efficiency, enabled by a revolution in process automation technology, is also helping U.S. manufacturers compete with manufacturers that enjoy low-cost labor in developing countries, particularly China.

Excess No Longer Success

Since peaking around 1999, the primary energy use in the U.S. manufacturing sector has declined steadily, according to the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy, from about 35 quadrillion BTUs annually to less than 31 quads.  Energy intensity – the BTUs used per dollar value of shipments – has declined even more dramatically.

The shift is coming as a shock to old-line factory managers unused to calculating energy as a key metric of efficiency and productivity.  “No one ever got fired for purchasing a pump or a machine that’s too big for the job,” said Fred Discenzo, manager of R&D at Rockwell Automation, at a recent energy management conference in Akron, Ohio.  In manufacturing, “excess capacity has always been the safe option.”

Rockwell is among an emerging segment of technology vendors that is trying to change that, through what it calls “the connected enterprise.”  What that means is connecting the factory floor to the C-suite with far greater visibility and immediacy than before.  Another name for this change might be “extreme granularity.”  In the near future, energy use will be measured not at the factory or line or machine level, but at the individual process level, per unit of production: how much energy did it take to make this widget or valve or bag of ice, and where in the process can that energy use be optimized?

The Next Revolution

Advances in factory floor networks, wireless sensors, virtualization, and monitoring equipment are enabling these improvements in manufacturing efficiency, energy conservation, and quality control.  These twinned revolutions – cleaner, cheaper, more distributed energy coming into the plant and sophisticated automation technology reducing energy intensity inside the plant – will result in changes that have far-reaching implications for the manufacturing sector, and for the economy.  “The new era of manufacturing will be marked by highly agile, networked enterprises that use information and analytics as skillfully as they employ talent and machinery to deliver products and services to diverse global markets,” concluded a 2012 McKinsey study entitled Manufacturing the Future.

At 32% of total energy consumption, industry uses more energy than any other sector of the U.S. economy.  Manufacturers that adapt to the new realities of energy, by changing the ways in which they source and use electricity, will be more competitive on the global stage – and could help usher in the new economic upswing that politicians and analysts have been dreaming of for years.

 

In Colorado, a New Solar Model Takes Root

— September 26, 2014

A few years ago the Yampa Valley Electric Association, the rural cooperative that serves communities across northwest Colorado, including the Steamboat Springs ski resort, signed an agreement with a company called Clean Energy Collective to build a community solar garden in the valley.

Headquartered in Carbondale, Colorado, Clean Energy Collective (CEC) has helped pioneer the community solar model, in which individuals and businesses can buy shares in solar power generation facilities rather than owning or leasing the solar panels themselves.  Paul Spencer, the founder and CEO of the company, calls it “solar for the masses.”

CEC signs a power purchase agreement (PPA) with the incumbent utility then pre-sells solar generation capacity in the form of subscriptions and finances construction using the PPA and the subscriptions, essentially, as collateral.  Subscribers don’t necessarily get the actual power flowing from the solar array; those electrons go onto the local power grid and appear as renewable energy credits on the customers’ bills. CEC makes money by charging subscribers a slight mark-up over the cost of producing the power.

Under the Smokestacks

As a way of shifting away from the antiquated, centralized, and coal-dependent power grid, community is a powerful model.  Founded in 2010, CEC now has 45 facilities spread across 19 utilities in 9 states. Spencer expects the number of facilities to double by the end of 2015.

In the Yampa Valley, though, CEC had a problem.

Craig, about 40 miles west of Steamboat in the mesa country of far west Colorado, has always been a coal town.  Most of the solar customers would certainly be in Steamboat, at the eastern end of the valley. But land in Steamboat is not cheap, and CECs business model is based, in part, on building solar arrays without paying too much for the land. Proximity to customers was a lesser concern.

As it turned out, there was an ideal site in Craig – literally in the shadows of the Craig power station’s smokestacks. CEC quickly signed up enough people to take 30% of the solar power the garden would produce. That’s when the problem arose.

The land the solar garden was on was owned by the city of Craig, but the mineral rights were held by Tri-State Generation & Transmission, the operator of the Trapper Mine outside town.  Tri-State officials said the rights were unlikely to be exercised — but they declined to formally cede them.  What’s more, some city council members were against the idea in principle, believing that it was harmful to the interests of the coal industry.  Spooked by the mineral rights issue, the title company on the land deal washed its hands of the deal. For a time, it appeared that the solar garden was dead.

Bridging the Divide

Paul Spencer and Terry Carwile, the mayor of Craig, weren’t ready to give up. “We begged, borrowed, and stole,” Spencer told me, chuckling. “We had to find a way to work around the mineral rights issue, and the town helped us do that.”

By the fall of 2014, a new, more amenable title company had been found, the deal was back in place, and CEC had resumed signing up customers.  In coal country, a truce had set in.

“Solar is not the replacement for coal,” said Spencer. “It’s another power solution that helps build a low-carbon future. In some small way, this project is an initial way to bridge the divide between Craig and Steamboat – between the coal-producing world and the renewable energies of the future.”

 

As Commodity Prices Slide, Big Miners Seek a Sustainable Strategy

— August 22, 2014

Navigant Research’s report, Renewable Energy in the Mining Industry, summed up the state of the global mining business: “In the last decade, increased demand from countries such as China and other emerging economies pushed the price of many metals and minerals upward, which stimulated investment in the mining industry. More recently, the global economic downturn and the collapse in a number of metal and mined commodity prices forced the mining industry to scale back investment into new mine sites, reduce operating mine lives, and scale back their investment into more capital expenditure-heavy renewable energy.”

Since that report was published in the fourth quarter of last year, commodity prices have stumbled further, and the pressures on mining giants like Rio Tinto, BHP Billiton, and Vale Brazil have intensified.

On the surface, so to speak, it’s a great time to be an extractive company with worldwide operations in iron, copper, coal, and other minerals that are essential to the functioning of the modern industrialized economy.  The rise of China and India has created a seemingly bottomless well of demand, particularly for iron ore for steelmaking; technological advancements have cut the costs of large-scale mining operations (while eliminating thousands of well-paying jobs); and governments in places desperate for economic growth, such as Mongolia and Sub-Saharan Africa, have proven pliant to the demands of multinational mining corporations.

The Bottom of the Well

Rio Tinto’s profits in the first half of 2014 doubled from the same period a year before.  BHP Billiton made $13.4 billion in profits in the 12 months leading up to June 2014.  Brazil’s Vale, the world’s largest producer of iron ore, reported second quarter profits of $1.43 billion – slightly below Wall Street estimates but still a healthy increase over the year before.

A closer look, though, shows that big miners are playing a risky and ultimately unsustainable game.  The term of fashion in the mining industry today is “de-diversification” as mining companies sell off low-margin mines that they invested in during the commodities boom of 2002-2008, before the global financial systems crashed and growth in China ground almost to a halt.  To keep profits up, the companies are slashing costs and adding new production – a short-term strategy that could spell long-term disaster.

Rio Tinto’s results “showed that the strategy of carving into costs while ramping up volumes that are being pursued by the major miners has worked to offset commodity price declines,” wrote Stephen Bartholomeusz in the Australian business publication, Business Spectator.  “The key question – worth billions of dollars – is whether it will continue to work.”

Twilight in the Mines

Ultimately, the dilemma facing miners of low-margin commodities like iron and coal is that as economies like China’s and India’s develop, they need less basic stuff.  It takes less iron to make an iPhone than it does to assemble an airliner.  Despite slowing demand, Vale plans to double its exports of iron ore to China over the next 5 years.  Pumping more iron and coal into markets that need less of them is not a winning strategy over the long run.  Goldman Sachs analysts have estimated that the rate of growth in the supply of iron ore is 3 times the rate of growth in demand.  That’s a recipe for a glut and a price crash.  Already, iron prices are on a downward slide.

Asian iron ore spot prices have fallen 31% this year, according to Reuters, and “the consensus is that they will remain below $100 for the foreseeable future as big miners such as BHP, Anglo-Australian rival Rio Tinto and Brazil’s Vale ramp up output even as Chinese demand growth weakens.”

As with coal, iron ore could be entering a downward spiral that could overwhelm the major miners as they narrow their focuses:  “Iron ore risks becoming another coal,” remarked Reuters’ commodities columnist Clyde Russell, “where miners pursue output gains in order to lower costs, but in the end the resulting supply surplus just depresses prices even more, resulting in a no-win situation for producers.”

Like the coal era, the age of iron and steel is nearing its twilight.  That’s not good if you’re a multinational mining outfit.

 

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