The arctic blast that’s turning the eastern half of the U.S. into a giant icebox this week has been good news for coal and oil.
Plants are using the most fuel oil in three years to produce the electricity that’s powering heaters across New England. In the PJM market, which stretches across the eastern U.S. from Illinois to Washington, D.C., coal has once again surged past natural gas to become the biggest fuel for power generation. Oil demand there jumped by more than 400 percent.
It marks a rare, albeit temporary, reversal of a broader transformation taking place in America’s power mix: The U.S. shale boom has unleashed record volumes of cheap natural gas, turning that fuel into the country’s biggest source of power generation. But this week’s deep freeze triggered natural gas price spikes across the eastern U.S. and generators are taking advantage of the rally to burn cheaper oil and coal.
“Most likely gas prices are too high,” said Tai Liu, an analyst at Bloomberg New Energy Finance. At $18 per million British thermal units for natural gas, he said, “I’d rather run my coal units if I can choose between the two.”
At one hub in New England, spot gas more than tripled earlier this week to over $35 per Btu, data compiled by Bloomberg show.
The increased coal use could add weight to the Trump administration’s push for bigger payments to coal and nuclear power generators. U.S. Energy Secretary Rick Perry has been calling for them to be compensated more for the “resilience” they offer the power grid during extreme weather events — like the polar vortex that tripped plants offline in early 2014.
So far, utilities and grid managers including PJM and New England’s system operator have reported none of the gas pipeline freeze-ups that plagued plants during the vortex. Coal stocks also froze in 2014. One of the nation’s biggest coal generators, American Electric Power Co., said it has seen no curtailments due to the weather affecting supplies.
The stakes are higher this year as PJM imposed rules that penalize generators who fail to deliver supplies that they’re contracted for. Several generators invested in dual-fuel capabilities at plants after the vortex.
The National Weather Service is warning that “dangerously cold” temperatures and strong winds will continue to chill the Northern and Central Plains, Great Lakes and Northeast into the weekend. Temperatures in Boston are forecast to drop to 2 degrees Fahrenheit on Dec. 31, 22 degrees below average, according to AccuWeather. New York City will see a low of 9 degrees Fahrenheit that day.
Power at PJM’s Western hub jumped 107 percent on Thursday to average $223.23 a megawatt-hour in the hour ended 11 a.m. local time, the highest since February 2015, according to Genscape data compiled by Bloomberg.
Temperatures won’t reach the same lows seen during the polar vortex, but this latest chill stands to deliver the same — if not larger — boost in heating demand. “The current forecast is shy of the coldest temperatures observed from that season,” Bradley Harvey, a meteorologist at Radiant Solutions, said in an interview. “But this event is longer-lasting.”
Late December to early January is set to yield the most gas-weighted heating degree days — a long-standing gauge for heating demand — since 1950, according to Radiant Solutions. The count will probably top those of the polar vortex, the firm said.
The chill, however, won’t last forever. The weather is forecast to warm up early next year. And coal and oil could lose their leg up even sooner.
“We are still flushing out the market,” John Borruso, director of natural gas trading at Con Edison Energy in Valhalla, New York, said Thursday. “Because of these cold temperatures, we are going to see some of these units step back in; I think we are going to see some gas units dispatch tomorrow.”