* January average coal output at 17.3 GW, highest since Feb 2012
* Coal, gas ramped up to offset nuclear outages, low wind, demand gains
* Day-ahead power average at 59-month high, spot spikes to 2008-high
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German coal and gas-fired power plant output in January rose to its highest in almost five years as cold weather boosted demand while below average wind and record-low winter nuclear availability reduced supply, according to power generation data compiled by think-tank Fraunhofer ISE.
The increased need to ramp up even less efficient thermal power plants helped to lift the day-ahead monthly average power price to its highest since February 2012 with spot prices spiking at their highest since 2008 at the height of the cold spell in late January, S&P Global Platts data shows. Output from coal-fired power plants was 12.9 TWh in January, up 37% on year and averaging around 17.3 GW for the whole month, a level not reached since the extended cold spell back in February 2012, the data shows.
Coal also removed lignite from the top of the power mix in January with lignite plants already running near maximum available capacity.
The increased coal burn may also have aggravated supply issues for coal transport on barges down the River Rhine with both RWE and EnBW warning of potential supply interruptions for some power plants inland and especially in southern Germany.
Very low Rhine levels still prevent barges from being fully loaded with coal, adding a premium to transport, according to sources.
Cold weather across Europe also lifted demand not just in Germany but also neighboring countries, especially France and the Alpine region.
Load in Germany itself was around 7% higher on year at 45.2 TWh, according to the Fraunhofer 'energy charts' data mainly based on TSO reports.
Output from gas plants also rose to its highest level since February 2012 at 5.6 TWh, up 14% on year, but with only a limited number of gas-fired plants reporting.
The Fraunhofer ISE data does not capture the full picture for gas plants with many combined heat-power plants (CHP) not accounted for in that data, but cold weather in general will see CHP plant output ramped to near maximum levels with a number of new CHP plants helping to boost overall gas-fired power output.
LACK OF WIND, NUCLEAR OUTAGES SEE POWER PRICES SPIKE
Wind power output in January dropped below 8 TWh, down 15% on year and averaging around 10.7 GW despite reaching a new hourly record just below 36 GW, the data shows.
Daily average wind production swung between 29.5 GW on January 4 and just 1.3 GW on January 24 when German spot power prices spiked above Eur100/MWh for the first time since 2008, the data shows.
German day-ahead baseload power prices averaged at Eur51.51/MWh this January, 74% above last January, Platts pricing data shows. Finally, nuclear output registered the biggest monthly deficit, down by over 2 TWh compared to last year with just 5.7 TWh generated, the lowest for a winter month in the modern nuclear era -- amid an unprecedented winter refueling schedule for four of the remaining eight reactors due to the expiry of the nuclear fuel tax at the end of 2016.
German nuclear operators had the short refueling stops scheduled many months in advance amid generally very low power prices over recent years.
However, this January an extended spell of very cold and calm weather coincided not only with the German nuclear outages, but also reduced nuclear availability in France and Switzerland as well as continued dry weather adding pressure on hydro reserves with both Swiss and French Alpine hydro levels falling to a 20-year low.
--Andreas Franke, firstname.lastname@example.org
--Edited by Alisdair Bowles, email@example.com