¹ PJM’s post-event study for winter storm Elliot on December 24 is worth reading in full and confirms the major problem was the failure of many generators to respond to instructions from the grid because of a failure to start up or secure enough fuel (principally gas). Generators were unavailable even though they had been given repeated warnings of an extreme weather event for several days beforehand and told to prepare for a plunge in temperatures. In many cases, generators provided less than 1 hour of notice they would not be available. If generators cannot be depended upon to respond to instructions they cannot be considered firm dispatchable power for reliability purposes.
In response, PJM was forced to initiate a series of relatively extreme emergency measures to protect the transmission system, including voltage reductions and an order for flat-out maximum generation from units that were available.
U.S. PETROLEUM INVENTORIES including the strategic reserve totalled 1,599 million barrels on January 6, the lowest seasonal level since 2004. Stocks have fallen by -185 million barrels over the last 12 months and are down by -518 million barrels from their peak in mid-2020 as production has persistently fallen below consumption:
¹ Running a “test” of the cold-start process at Drax on December 16 just four days after the coal-fired power plant received instructions (subsequently cancelled) to light up and prepare to generate for “real” on December 12 to help with insufficient reserve margins is interesting timing.
U.S. DISTILLATE inventories increased by +1 million barrels to 120 million barrels over the seven days ending on December 9. Stocks are still -16 million barrels (-12%, -0.79 standard deviations) below the pre-pandemic five-year average, but the deficit has halved from -34 million barrels (-24%, -2.05 standard deviations) on October 7. The biggest seasonal inventory accumulation for at least two decades has erased a large part of the previous shortage:
U.S. SERVICE SECTOR prices rose at an annualised rate of 6.4% over the three months ending in November. Service sector output is more labour-intensive than manufacturing and prices tend to be more sticky. Services inflation has decelerated from 9.9% in the three months ending in June, but it is still three times faster than the central bank’s target of a little over 2%:
U.S. GASOLINE inventories have remained much closer to normal, in contrast to distillates, with gasoline stocks just -9 million barrels (-4%) below the pre-pandemic five-year seasonal average on November 18:
LONDON’s temperatures have been higher than the long-term seasonal average consistently since the middle of October, reducing heating demand and gas consumption. The number of heating degree days so far this winter has reached just 117 compared with a long-term average of 153. But the city-region is only 10% of the way through the expected heating season. The half-way point doesn’t normally arrive until January 23 as a result of seasonal lag:
¹ A fixed price cap that will be reviewed regularly in the light of market conditions sounds a lot like creating an “Organization of Petroleum Importing Countries” (OPIC) with all the resulting problems of information collection, analysis, forecasting and decision-making. OPEC has struggled to be an effective market manager; there is no reason to think OPIC will be any more successful.
Some operational and policy questions for OPIC:
How will the organisation estimate current production and consumption?
How will the organisation forecast future production, consumption, inventories and prices?
Will OPIC seek input from oil traders and refiners?
Will OPIC hold regular meetings to decide policy?
How often will the organisation review and revise the price cap?
Will OPIC coordinate with OPEC and OPEC⁺ ?
What is the relationship between OPIC and the IEA?
How will OPIC respond if Russia cuts production and exports?
Will the U.S./IEA release more crude and product stocks to counter any interruption of Russia’s oil exports?
Will G7⁺ set policy unilaterally or will it take into account the interests of third-country importers (e.g. China and India)?
U.S. GAS INVENTORIES rose by +107 billion cubic feet (bcf) in the week to October 28. Inventories have increased by a total of +2,119 bcf since the start of April, the fastest seasonal rise since 2019 and before that 2015. Stocks are still -203 bcf (-5%) below the pre-pandemic average for 2015-2019 but the deficit has narrowed from -401 bcf (-14%) since mid-August:
RIVER RHINE water levels at Kaub had dropped to just 61 centimetres on August 2, the lowest since December 2018, and the lowest for the time of year for more than 25 years, as prolonged drought causes river levels to fall across Northwest Europe, threatening power generation and transport of bulk commodities:
CHINA’s hydroelectric power stations generated a record 583 billion kWh in the first six months of the year, an increase of +100 billion kWh or more than +20% compared with the same period in 2021. China’s hydro generation was more than three times the entire electrical output of the United Kingdom:
CHINA’s thermal power generation, nearly all of it from coal, dipped to 2,728 billion kWh in January-June, a decrease of 98 billion kWh (-4%) compared with the same period in 2021, helping improve the coal inventory situation:
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LONDON’s coal market in the late 1830s and early 1840s saw the last and most ambitious in a long line of attempts to restrict supply to keep up prices. The volume of coal sold each day on the city’s coal exchange was linked to prevailing prices on a sliding scale. If prices rose, more coal was sold. If prices fell, a smaller volume was offered for sale. An example of the sliding scale from February 1837 is reproduced below. The “limitation of the vend” was managed by the London coal factors acting on behalf of and in conjunction with the coal mine owners of the Northeast.
The system was possible because cargoes of coal carried by ship from the Northeast to the Port of London could only be sold and unloaded in strict order of arrival. Regulations enforced by the port authorities and the coal factors themselves required unsold and unloaded ships to wait their turn in the lower reaches of the river. Ships could only proceed to the “legal quays” or for lightering from midriver in the Pool of London once the factors had arranged a sale and the city’s metering office (which measured and later weighed the cargos) had assigned a metering officer.
The coal owners were organised in a series of coal trade committees which forecast demand and allocated output among the mines. The London factors had their own society which managed the rules of the turn system, the market, and the sliding scale as well as reporting on market conditions and cheating efforts to the coal trade committees (“Sea coal for London”, Smith, 1961).
The “limitation of the vend” and the “turn” system eventually broke down in the early 1840s in the face of increased supply from new sources in the Northeast and other parts of the country. At the same time, increasing numbers of vessels avoided the costly wait for sale and unloading because they were delivering cargoes for the government or the rapidly growing gas-manufacturing companies. Instead of waiting for sale after arrival in the port, more and more cargoes were sold prior to arrival and in some cases even before loading in the Northeast.
Before the system collapsed, the queue of unsold and unloaded ships in the river, which could amount to hundreds of vessels at a time, stuck for days or even weeks at a time, rafted along both banks from London Bridge down to Greenwich, with more queued downriver in sections managed by the harbour master all the way to Gravesend, attracted adverse attention from consumers, the city government and parliament, especially at times of high and rising prices, triggering multiple enquiries into anticompetitive practices.
Half-hearted efforts to resurrect the system in the later 1840s and early 1850s were unsuccessful because the system of supplying coal by ship faced rapidly growing competition from the delivery of coal by the new railways to the metropolis. Rail deliveries were not covered by the ship-based system of waiting turn or the sliding scale. The rail network also opened up new inland sources of coal supply in Yorkshire, Durham and the Southwest to compete with the traditional producers in the Northeast, overwhelming efforts at market management.
Development and deployment of steam-powered coal ships rapidly displacing the traditional sailing ships from the early 1850s onwards also made a return to the turn system impossible. Steam-powered ships were faster, larger and needed fewer crew members so they were cheaper to operate. But they were also more capital intensive so their profitability depended on maximising time spent voyaging and minimising delays loading and unloading. Steam-driven ships could not afford to wait their turn for sale and unloading. Many were contracted to gas companies, which had always been exempt from the turn system, and often bought direct from the mine owners in the Northeast, bypassing the factors and the coal exchange. The rest usually voyaged with orders to sell immediately on reaching the port – or the cargo had already been sold before they were even loaded.
The limitation of the vend and the turn system is a fascinating case study in the how to make a cartel work and the problems that can cause it to break down, anticipating many of the practices and challenges faced by the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and the wider group of exporters (OPEC+).
Rough procedure for sale of coal in London during the late 1830s and early 1840s under the limitation of the vend and turn system:
Coal Trade Committee of major mine owners in the Northeast of England forecasts coal demand;
Total coal production apportioned between mines according to quotas;
Coal mine owner sells coal to ship owner at the quayside in Northeast of England;
Ship owner conveys cargo down east coast to Thames Estuary;
Ship reports to Coal Factors’ Office at Gravesend;
Ship given turn number based on strict order of arrival;
Ship’s papers and cargo details expressed by steamer or horse to London;
Ship also reports to Harbour Master at Gravesend for section order;
Ship directed to one of seven sections in the Lower Thames between Northfleet and Blackwall to wait turn;
Cargoes for the government or for gas-manufacturing companies sent direct to unloading wharves, thereby avoiding turn keeping;
Cargo registered with both the Coal Exchange and with Metering/Weighing Office ;
Cargo entered into both the Sales Turn and the Metering Turn lists;
Ships can appeal to magistrate for immediate unloading on safety grounds;
Ships caught cheating sent to bottom of sales and/or metering lists;
Coal Factor appointed by coal mine owner files paperwork with Customs and Lord Mayor’s office and pays bond;
Cargo waits turn for sale with the number of cargoes sold each limited according to prevailing prices on a sliding scale;
Cargo sold on Coal Exchange by Factor to a professional First Buyer;
Coal Meter/Weigher appointed to measure the volume of cargo as unloaded;
Ship given permission to proceed upriver to the Lower Pool for unloading;
Unloading gang appointed by the owner of one of the local pubs*;
Metering officer and unloading gang actually unload cargo at specified minimum rate per day;
Payment terms: one-third cash, one-third in note payable in sixty days, one-third in four days after sale;
Coal Factor notifies coal mine owner of completion of sale in accordance with obligations;
Ships caught deviating from the system refused future cargoes by sellers in the Northeast;
Ship returns to the Northeast to collect next cargo;
Coal Factors Society sends regular report on market conditions to coal owners in the Coal Trade Committee.
* Not a joke. Gangs got hired on the understanding they would spend a large part of their earnings in the pub. There were 70 public houses between the Tower of London and Limehouse where men who wanted to work would assemble. “He who spent most at the public house had the greatest chance of work” (“London labour and the London poor”, Mayhew, 1851).
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EU28 GAS INVENTORIES are accumulating at a relatively rapid rate of +5.2 TWh per day, notwithstanding the recent interruptions of pipeline supplies from Russia, compared with an average rate of +4.8 TWh per day over the previous ten years:
CHINA’s central-northern region stretching from Ningxia and Gansu in the west to Henan and Shandong in the east, but not including Beijing and the wider Jīng-Jīn-Jì metropolitan region, has been experiencing temperatures well above normal, leading to record electricity consumption in recent weeks. The map also shows below normal temperatures in the south where the monsoon rains have been unusually heavy:
JAPAN has called for electricity conservation especially in Tokyo as temperatures have risen more than +6°C above the long-term seasonal average in recent days and the strong air-conditioning and refrigeration demand has strained the availability of power supplies:
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