Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (ANR), American Electric Power Company, Inc. (AEP), Cloud Peak Energy Inc. (CLD): One Coal Miner That Is Changing With The Times

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Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR) is looking to the future of coal and adjusting to what it sees. That hasn’t meant big changes for this well-positioned miner, but it has resulted in a shifting focus toward international sales despite ongoing earnings weakness.

The U.S. market

Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR) believes that coal use in the United States will be lower in the future than it has been in the past on a relative basis. To that end, American Electric Power Company, Inc. (NYSE:AEP) more than doubled its use of natural gas in the two years leading into 2013. That fuel increased its share of AEP’s power generation to 17%, with coal feeling the brunt of the share loss. This trend is going to continue, and AEP isn’t alone in the shift.

Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR)

However, the balance between coal and gas use will be about price, too. So, while the long-term trend is toward cleaner burning natural gas and renewable energy, when gas prices move higher, coal use will bounce back, at least modestly. The first six months of this year are a case in point. At American Electric Power Company, Inc. (NYSE:AEP), gas use fell 37% through June while coal use increased about 4%. For a company like American Electric Power Company, Inc. (NYSE:AEP), the ability to switch between fuel sources like that is vital to enhancing profitability.

So, as Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR) suggests, “Despite losing some market share to natural gas, coal will continue to be the first or second main source of power…” The company generated about 55% of its revenues in 2012 from coal used for electricity generation. Of that total, about 10% came from the ultra-cheap Powder River Basin (PRB) and the rest from its Eastern operations. The U.S. thermal coal, then, will remain a key foundation for the company’s future efforts.

Growth around the world

Although domestic utilities drive U.S. coal use and sales, the United States isn’t the only market for thermal coal. On that score, Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR) is already a major exporter, sending about 20% of its coal to customers on five continents last year. While metallurgical coal, used in steel making, made up the vast majority of the company’s foreign sales, thermal coal made up about a quarter of the total.

With a slowing U.S. thermal coal market, the push to get domestic coal into foreign electric plants is going to pick up steam. And there’s plenty of support for growth. According to Alpha Natural Resources, Inc. (NYSE:ANR), “…by 2017, the world will consume nearly 1.2 billion more tons of coal per year than it does today.”

That’s why Cloud Peak Energy Inc. (NYSE:CLD) has been trying to get its PRB coal into key markets like Asia. To that end, Cloud Peak has increased its exports from nearly nothing five years ago to a projected 5.5% of total coal volume this year. That’s an impressive trend, but the company is waiting on additional port availability that won’t come on line for several years.

That will likely lead to a slow moving export effort and leaves the company reliant on U.S. demand, for the most part, over the near term. That’s not such a bad thing, though, since PRB coal is relatively cheap and Cloud Peak Energy Inc. (NYSE:CLD) has remained profitable throughout coal’s recent troubles.

Alpha already sends almost four times as much coal overseas, however, and has total port capacity of between 25 and 30 million tons. In other words, it still has plenty of ability to increase its exports today. That puts it in prime position to benefit from thermal export growth, but also to participate in met coal demand growth.

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