Energy Future says low natural gas prices driving down its coal generation

Low natural gas prices in recent years in part were the reason that Energy Future Holdings and its Luminant power generating subsidiary last year sought Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection, and why three coal units will continue to run on only a seasonal basis out into the future, said Energy Future in an April 14 disclosure statement that accompanied its reorganization plan filed with the U.S. Bankruptcy Court for the District of Delaware.

“The prolonged, significant decline in natural gas prices has significantly decreased the profitability of [Texas Competitive Electric Holdings Co. LLC‘s] lignite/coal and nuclear-fueled units,” said the statement. “These market conditions and other factors have resulted in significant declines in TCEH’s revenues that were not entirely offset by gains from TCEH’s natural gas hedging program, and as of the date hereof, all of these favorable positions have been terminated.

“The consequences to the profitability of TCEH’s units have been and will be significant: declining natural gas prices, increased competition from more economic generation assets (including renewable generation and more efficient natural gas-fueled technology), along with other macroeconomic drivers, resulted in significant declines in revenues and the recognition of impairments to TCEH’s goodwill intangible asset balance of $1.6 billion in 2014, $1.0 billion in 2013, $1.2 billion in 2012, and $4.1 billion in 2010.

“In response to these economic conditions, Luminant has reduced the amount of time that certain lignite/coal-fueled units, that are comparatively more expensive to operate, generate electricity to reduce the amount of electricity generated uneconomically. These reductions generally take one of two forms. Luminant may temporarily cease electricity generation at certain lignite/coal units for short periods of time when the demand for electricity and wholesale electricity prices in the ERCOT market are comparatively low. The units resume operation when demand for electricity, and wholesale electricity prices, are comparatively high. Alternatively, certain units may be operated on a seasonal basis in response to sustained periods of comparatively low wholesale electricity prices and demand for electricity.

“Indeed, Luminant has sought and received permission in the past to operate two of its lignite/coal units at Monticello, along with one unit at Martin Lake, on a seasonal basis, and Luminant anticipates that it will continue to operate these units on a seasonal basis going forward. In 2014, 2013, and 2012, the estimated effects of these generation reductions of lignite/coal-fueled units totaled approximately 15,770 GWh, 12,460 GWh, and 10,410 GWh of lowered electricity output, respectively.

“TCEH’s previous long-term natural gas hedges, which were put in place in 2006, 2007, and 2008, largely matured by 2013, the remainder would have matured in 2014 absent the commencement of the Chapter 11 Cases, and as of the date hereof, all such hedges have been terminated. These maturities have already, and will continue to, exacerbate the TCEH Debtors’ balance sheet-related challenges.

“As of April 30, 2008, TCEH had hedged approximately 85% of its 2009–2013 expected natural gas price exposure associated with its expected nuclear, coal, and lignite generation, with natural gas positions at average prices ranging from $7.25 per MMBtu to $8.26 per MMBtu. Further, most of the hedging transactions were secured with a first lien interest in TCEH’s assets, which eliminated normal collateral posting requirements for those wholesale hedging transactions and associated effects on liquidity. As of December 31, 2014, TCEH had approximately 79% of its 2015 natural gas position hedged with either forward sales of electricity or other natural gas hedges. These hedges, however, are at prices that are closer to current market prices of natural gas, versus the favorable prices of the hedges that were executed in 2006, 2007, and 2008. As a result, TCEH is experiencing significantly greater exposure to lower natural gas prices and correspondingly lower wholesale electricity prices, and will continue to be exposed to these pressures going forward.”

Luminant’s coal units face various issues

Luminant’s lignite/coal-fueled generation operations include twelve units at five plant sites, with total nameplate capacity of 8,017 MW. The three units on seasonal status total 1,880 MW. The lignite/coal plants are:

  • two units at Big Brown with total nameplate capacity of 1,150 MW;
  • three units at Monticello with total nameplate capacity of 1,880 MW;
  • three units at Martin Lake with total nameplate capacity of 2,250 MW;
  • two units at Oak Grove with total nameplate capacity of 1,600 MW; and
  • two units at Sandow with total nameplate capacity of 1,137 MW.

Luminant’s lignite/coal-fueled units operated at 69.6%, 74.1%, and 70.0% of nameplate generation capacity for the years 2014, 2013, and 2012, respectively. In 2011 and 2010, the units performed at the top decile for U.S. coal-fueled generation facilities. Reduced generation in 2012 through 2014 was largely due to low wholesale electricity prices in the ERCOT market. Coal/lignite-fueled generation accounted for 58% of Luminant’s nameplate capacity and 72% of Luminant’s electricity generation in 2014.

In 2014, Luminant mined approximately 30 million tons of lignite to fuel its plants, and approximately 56% of the fuel used at the Big Brown, Monticello and Martin Lake facilities and 73% of the fuel used at all of Luminant’s lignite/coal fueled generation facilities was supplied from surface-minable lignite reserves located adjacent to Luminant’s plants. Luminant meets its fuel requirements at its Big Brown, Monticello, and Martin Lake plants by blending lignite with coal purchased from third-party suppliers in the Powder River Basin in Wyoming. Notable is that Luminant is currently seeking court approval to reject a PRB coal contract with Cloud Peak Energy (NYSE: CLD).

As a result of projected mining development costs, current economic forecasts and regulatory uncertainty, in 2014 Luminant decided to transition the fuel plans at its Big Brown and Monticello facilities to be fully fueled with coal from the PRB. So Luminant plans to discontinue lignite mining operations at these sites once mining and reclamation of current mine sites is complete. Lignite mining and the majority of reclamation activities at these facilities is expected to be completed by the end of 2020 unless economic forecasts and increased regulatory uncertainty justify additional mine development.

TCEH’s financial difficulties resulting from the effect of low natural gas prices are punctuated by TCEH’s significant exposure to the uncertain costs of environmental litigation and regulation, including both air quality and global climate change regulation, said the statement. TCEH anticipates that it will incur a total of nearly $1.2 billion in capital expenditures related to environmental rules and regulations from 2010 through 2020 (including maintenance of existing emissions control equipment)—and that amount could be subject to material increases depending upon any new environmental regulations. Examples of environmental regulation and litigation-related expenses include regulations and litigation related to air quality standards under the Clean Air Act, including the much-litigated Cross-State Air Pollution Rule and the Mercury and Air Toxics Standards, potential and proposed rules by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and related litigation regarding Regional Haze, litigation and regulation related to the byproducts of electricity generation—including the Disposal of Coal Combustion Residuals from Electric Utilities rule—and steps to address greenhouse gas emissions. Each of these categories of regulation and litigation, along with others, impose cost and uncertainty on TCEH’s business operations.

Another issue that the cost of delivered coal has increased since 2007 for four reasons: increases in the price of PRB coal; higher rail transportation costs; the addition of rail fuel surcharges to certain agreements; and inflation. These increases in the cost of delivered PRB coal increase the cost of operating Luminant’s lignite/coal-fueled units and, consequently, reduce overall profits, the company said. 

About Barry Cassell 20414 Articles
Barry Cassell is Chief Analyst for GenerationHub covering coal and emission controls issues, projects and policy. He has covered the coal and power generation industry for more than 24 years, beginning in November 2011 at GenerationHub and prior to that as editor of SNL Energy’s Coal Report. He was formerly with Coal Outlook for 15 years as the publication’s editor and contributing writer, and prior to that he was editor of Coal & Synfuels Technology and associate editor of The Energy Report. He has a bachelor’s degree from Central Michigan University.