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Operating costs at NC coal plants set for conversion run ahead of market prices

Operation and maintenance, or O&M, costs at two coal-fired power plants in North Carolina that owner Duke Energy Corp. intends to convert to run on natural gas have been higher than wholesale power prices at a nearby hub, according to an S&P Global Market Intelligence analysis.

Duke has said it plans to convert the Belews Creek and James E. Rogers Energy Complex (Cliffside) facilities, each of which has two units, to gas. The company said on its third-quarter 2017 earnings call Nov. 3 that the plan to convert Belews Creek entails combined investment of $150 million between utility subsidiaries Duke Energy Carolinas LLC and Piedmont Natural Gas Co. Inc. Company officials said converting Belews Creek would increase fuel flexibility while also lowering carbon emissions.

The 2,220-MW Belews Creek facility is in Stokes County, N.C. The two units, Belews Creek ST 1 and Belews Creek ST 2, began operating in 1974 and 1975, respectively, and would be converted to run on natural gas in 2019 and 2020. Both had similar capacity factors in 2016 — 55.92% at unit 1 and 54.14% at unit 2. Together, the two units produced about 10.7 million MWh of net generation in 2016. In 2017, the plant's largest single source of coal was CONSOL Energy Inc.'s Bailey Mine in Greene County, Pa.

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The 1,400-MW James E. Rogers Energy Complex, previously known as the Cliffside plant, is in Cleveland County, N.C. The 844-MW Unit 6 is one of the newest coal-fired power plants in the U.S. and began operating in 2012, while the 556-MW unit 5 has been operating since 1972. The older unit has a much lower capacity factor, 15.62% in 2016, while unit 6 had a capacity factor of 39.37%. Combined, the two units produced about 3.7 million MWh of net generation in 2016. CONSOL Energy's Bailey Mine was the largest source among several coal suppliers in 2017.

According to S&P Global Market Intelligence's unit-level production cost model, the Generation Supply Curve, O&M costs at all four units in 2016 were higher than the average annual wholesale power price at the closest trading hub, PJM Interconnection's Dominion hub. During 2017, power prices were somewhat higher, and were sometimes equal to or higher than O&M costs at three of the four units.

O&M costs at the older James E. Rogers 5 unit have been consistently higher than market prices, at about $56/MWh in 2016 compared to the Dominion hub's average 2016 price of $30.52/MWh. The lowest O&M costs in 2016 were at Belews Creek unit 1, at about $34.30/MWh.

As of Dec. 4, the Dominion hub around-the-clock forward price for 2018 was $33.92/MWh, which was still lower than the modeled O&M cost for all four units.

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In 2016, Central Appalachia Big Sandy River Barge annual average prices for coal fell to $44.09/ton compared to a 2015 average of $52.35/ton. Prices have rebounded somewhat in 2017, steadily increasing up to an average of $53.45/ton for the first 11 months of the year.

Annual average gas prices at the Transco Z5 hub have bounced around since an early 2015 spike. In 2014, the annual average price reported at the hub was $6.01/MMBtu, and despite a brief spike, finished 2015 at an annual average of $3.52/MMBtu. The next year, 2016, brought prices much lower, down to an average of $2.04/MMBtu. The spot price for November 2017 was $3.075/MMBtu.

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