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US Industries Are Buckling Under Pressure of Surging Electricity Costs

Industrial power costs are up 24 percent from a year ago according to Energy Information Agency (EIA) data. That was as of May, and the prognosis is getting worse.
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EIA data by user classification, chart by Mish

EIA data by user classification, chart by Mish

Rising energy bills have forced companies to scale back industrial operations, threatening a greater drag on the economy.

As of May, electrical energy costs are up 24.4 percent from a year ago. Producer Price Index (PPI) data suggests things are getting worse.

Please consider US Industrial Complex Is Starting to Buckle From High Power Costs

Europe’s fertilizer plants, steel mills, and chemical manufacturers were the first to succumb. Massive paper mills, soybean processors, and electronics factories in Asia went dark. Now soaring natural gas and electricity prices are starting to hit the US industrial complex.

On June 22, 600 workers at the second-largest aluminum mill in America, accounting for 20% of US supply, learned they were losing their jobs because the plant can’t afford an electricity tab that’s tripled in a matter of months. Century Aluminum Co. says it’ll idle the Hawesville, Kentucky, mill for as long as a year, taking out the biggest of its three US sites. A shutdown like this can take a month as workers carefully swirl the molten metal into storage so it doesn’t solidify in pipes and vessels and turn the entire facility into a useless brick. Restarting takes another six to nine months. For this reason, owners don’t halt operations unless they’ve exhausted all other options.

At least two steel mills have begun suspending some operations to cut energy costs, according to one industry executive, who asked not to be identified because the information isn’t public. In May, a group of factories across the US Midwest warned federal energy regulators that some were on the verge of closing for the summer or longer because of what they described as “unjust and unreasonable” electricity costs. They asked to be wholly absolved of some power fees—a request that, if granted, would be unprecedented.

Michael Harris, whose firm Unified Energy Services LLC buys fuel for industrial clients, says costs have risen so high that some are having to put millions of dollars of credit on the line to secure power and gas contracts. “That can be devastating for a corporation,’’ he says. “I don’t see any scenario, absent explosions at US LNG facilities’’ that trap supplies at home, in which gas prices are headed lower in the long term.

EIA Average Electricity Cost Cents

EIA cost data chart by Mish

EIA cost data chart by Mish

EIA Cost Data January 2021 vs May 2022

  • Residential: 12.69 to 14.92
  • Commercial: 10.31 to 12.14
  • Industrial: 6.39 to 8.35
  • Transportation: 9.61 to 10.79
  • All: 10.36 to 12.09

Those prices are through May 2022. Much electrical energy comes from natural gas. 

US Natural Gas Futures 

US Natural Gas Futures courtesy of Trading Economics

US Natural Gas Futures courtesy of Trading Economics

US gas prices fluctuated wildly in June and July. I suspect the average price is 7.33 or so for both months. Things are decidedly worse in Europe.

EU Natural Gas Price

US Natural Gas Futures courtesy of Trading Economics

US Natural Gas Futures courtesy of Trading Economics

From 25 or even 50 to 200 is one hell of a leap. It's somewhere between 300% and 700% depending on your starting point vs 100% or so for the US. 

Let's now check the latest PPI data for a look at where things are and more importantly headed.  

PPI Electrical Power Index 2020-Present 

PPI data from the BLS, chart by Mish

PPI data from the BLS, chart by Mish

From pre-pandemic to January of 2021, the PPI electrical power index was flat. It has since surged on a relatively steady pace.

From May to July the index went from 231 to 238. That tacks on another three percentage points since the EIA report. 

PPI Electrical Power Index 1991-Present 

PPI data from the BLS, chart by Mish

PPI data from the BLS, chart by Mish

Long Term Trend

The long-term trend does not exactly look pretty. 

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And as Bloomberg noted, Century Aluminum Co. says it’ll idle the Hawesville, Kentucky, mill for as long as a year, taking out the biggest of its three US sites.

Reflections on Beer 

Regarding the price of aluminum, please note America's Beer CEOs Have Had It With the Trump-Era Aluminum Tariffs

The beer industry uses more than 41 billion aluminum cans annually, according to a Beer Institute letter to the White House dated July 1.

“These tariffs reverberate throughout the supply chain, raising production costs for aluminum end-users and ultimately impacting consumer prices,” according to the letter signed by the CEOs of Anheuser-Busch, Molson Coors, Constellation Brands Inc.’s beer division, and Heineken USA. 

This letter to the president comes amid the worst inflation in more than 40 years and just months after aluminum touched a multi-decade high. Prices for the metal have since eased significantly.

Whatever victory beer makers and drinkers may have with aluminum prices may not last with US aluminum plants shutting down. 

Then again, the cure for everything is likely to be a huge recession. 

Zero Consumer Inflation

I am pleased to report there was no consumer inflation in July. 

For discussion, please consider CPI Month-Over-Month Was Unchanged, Year-Over-Year Up 8.5 Percent

The CPI report resulted in a nonsensical Twitter debate on the meaning of zero. For the record, assuming you believe the numbers, there was indeed zero inflation month-over-month.

The accurate rebuttal is: One month? So what? 

Moreover, zero is not as good as it looks. All of it was due to a 7.7 percent decline in the price of gasoline. And year-over-year inflation was a hot 8.5 percent.

Meanwhile, rent and food keep rising and the price of rent will be sticky. Gasoline is more dependent on recession and global supply chains. 

Food Prices Rise Most Since February 1979

For more on the price of food, please see Food at Home is Up 13.1 Percent From a Year Ago, Most Since February 1979

For more on rent, please note Tennant's Unions Demand Biden Declare a National Emergency to Stop Rent Gouging

For more on producer prices please see Producer Prices Decline For the First Time Since the Pandemic Due to Energy

Although energy declined, electricity didn't. 

Spotlight on Fed Silliness

The above reports and this one industrial costs puts a spotlight on the silliness of the Fed's focus on consumer inflation as if that's all that matters. 

The Fed has blown three consecutive bubbles trying to produce two percent consumer inflation while openly promoting raging bubbles in assets and missing the boat entirely on industrial matters.

This post originated on MishTalk.Com.

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