Cleaner burning and cheaper natural gas and renewable choices such as wind and solar power have been displacing coal in recent years. Coal fired generating plants have been going the way of the dodo bird in recent years.

But an analysis of Department of Energy data by River Transport News shows that barged coal shipments improved during the fourth quarter of 2018 compared to the previous quarter and the previous year’s volumes.

Coal shipments moved by barge to domestic coal fired power plants during the fourth quarter “increased to 21.6 million tons from 20.7 million tons shipped by barge during the comparable year-ago period,” RTN reported.

Barged volume in the third quarter of 2018 was 20.6 million tons. The fourth quarter total of 21.6 million tons was the highest quarterly level since the third quarter of 2017, when shipments totaled 24.4 million tons, the analysis showed.

Unfortunately for coal carrying barge companies, the fourth quarter numbers were the exception rather than the rule. “The modest sequential and year-over-year improvement in fourth quarter 2018 domestic barged coal shipments, however, was not sufficient to stem the free fall in full year 2018 barged coal shipments to domestic power generators,” RTN reported. “These shipments plunged last year to just 83 million tons, down 8.9% from the already anemic 91.1 million tons of coal that moved by barge in 2017 to domestic power generators.”

To see just how far out of favor coal has fallen, the 2018 barged coal receipts by power generators is almost 50% lower than the record high of 163.8 million tons in 2006, the analysis shows.

While wind and solar and wave technologies are working hard to find their way in the U.S. energy market, natural gas is the sworn enemy of coal. “The decline in coal burn for the barge-served sector continues to reflect the combined effects of reducing market share to natural gas-fired generation, exacerbated by the closure of coal-fired generating plants,” RTN’s analysis shows. “Nationwide, total utility-scale electricity generation managed to eke out a modest amount of year-over-year growth during the fourth quarter of 2018. Over this period, coal-fired generation declined by 3.5% while natural gas-fired generation increased by 8%.”

The analysis points out that the year-over-year increase in natural gas-fired generation occurred despite a 19.4% increase in the average price of natural gas delivered to the power generating sector.


Ken Hocke has been the senior editor of WorkBoat since 1999. He was the associate editor of WorkBoat from 1997 to 1999. Prior to that, he was the editor of the Daily Shipping Guide, a transportation daily in New Orleans. He has written for other publications including The Times-Picayune. He graduated from Louisiana State University with an arts and sciences degree, with a concentration in English, in 1978.