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Electricity imports weigh on Rhine coal transport

12 Apr 2012 16:02 (+01:00 GMT)

London, 12 April (Argus) — Traffic on the Rhine river in northwest Europe halved year on year in the first quarter of this year as German utilities prefer to import electricity from France over burning coal.

Water levels on the Rhine are high, allowing operators to load barges from Amsterdam or Rotterdam to German power stations at up to 80pc of their capacity, but coal transport has been gradually declining this year following an increase in electricity imports from France.

“Utilities such as Eon and EnBW buy electricity from nuclear power plants in France instead of buying coal and burning it,” one barge operator said. “This trend is likely to continue in the coming months.”

Utilities inform barge operators at the start of each month about how much coal they will need for their power plants.

“Normally we would expect to transport around 150,000t of coal to German power plants, but this month the volumes are around 80,000t, if not lower,” the operator said.

Barge operators have transported just over 1mn t of coal so far this year, down by more than 1mn t on the previous year, and the volumes are not likely to pick up in the next few months.

Freight costs on the river are unchanged on the last two weeks at around €6/t. Operators do not add any surcharges, because water levels allow comfortable loading of vessels.

Today's water levels were at 175cm at the key measuring point of Kaub, on the middle Rhine, up by around 40cm on the end of March, according to the Electronic Waterway Information Service (EWIS). Levels are likely to remain around the 180cm mark for the next two weeks, EWIS said.

Coal inventories remain at high levels at Europe's largest terminals showing the lack of demand in the European market.

EMO — Europe's largest dry bulk terminal in Rotterdam, the Netherlands — currently stores around 3mn t of thermal and coking coal, virtually unchanged on the past few weeks, while coal stocks at Amsterdam's largest port OBA are around 1.8mn t, still nearly full capacity. EBS, Rotterdam's second-largest port, stores about 850,000t of coal, an increase of around 150,000t following the port's expansion earlier this year.

The majority of coal arriving at European ports is from Colombia. Coal shipments from Colombia to Europe's largest terminals take approximately two weeks, with freight set at around $9.45/t for a Capesize vessel and $14.95/t for a Panamax vessel.

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