When affordable gas and expensive carbon puts coal in the corner

Coal and nat gas prices are increasingly quite normal versus real average prices from 2010 to 2019 during which TTF nat gas averaged EUR 27/MWh and ARA coal prices averaged USD 108/ton in real-terms. In the current environment of ”normal” coal and nat gas prices we now see a darkening picture for coal fired power generation where coal is becoming less and less competitive over the coming 2-3 years with cost of coal fired generation is trading more and more out-of-the money versus both forward power prices and the cost of nat gas + CO2. Coal fired power generation will however still be needed many places where there is no local substitution and limited grid access to other locations with other types of power supply. These coal fired power-hubs will then become high-power-cost-hubs. And that may become a challenge for the local power consumers in these locations.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

When affordable gas and expensive carbon puts coal in the corner. The power sector accounts for some 50% of emissions in the EU ETS system in a mix of coal and nat gas burn for power. The sector is also highly dynamic, adaptive and actively trading. This sector has been and still is the primary battleground in the EU ETS where a fight between high CO2 intensity coal versus lower CO2 intensity nat gas is playing out.

Coal fired power is dominant over nat gas power when the carbon market is loose and the EUA price is low. The years 2012, 2013, 2014, 2015 were typical example-years of this. Coal fired power was then in-the-money for around 7000 hours (one year = 8760 hours) in Germany. Nat gas fired power was however only in the money for about 2500 hours per year and was predominantly functioning as peak-load supply.

Then the carbon market was tightened by politicians with ”back-loading” and the MSR mechanism which drove the EUA price up to EUR 20/ton in 2019 and to EUR 60/ton in 2021. Nat gas fired power and coal fired power were then both in-the-money for almost 5000 hours per year from 2016 to 2023. The EUA price was in the middle-ground in the fight between the two. In 2023 however, nat gas was in-the-money for 4000 hours while coal was only in-the-money for 3000 hours. For coal that is a dramatic change from the 2012-2015 period when it was in the money for 7000 hours per year.

And it is getting worse and worse for coal fired generation when we look forward. That is of course the political/environmental plan as well. It is still painful of course for coal power.

On a forward basis the cost of Coal+EUA is increasingly way, way above the forward German power prices. Coal is basically out-of-the money for more and more hours every year going forward. It may be temporary, but it fits the overall political/environmental plan and also the increasing penetration of renewable energy which will push aside more and more fossil power as we move forward. 

But coal power cannot easily and quickly be shut down all over the place in preference to cheaper nat gas based power. Coal fired power will be the primary source of power in many places with no local alternative and limited grid capacity to other sources of power elsewhere.

The consequence is that those places where coal fired power generation cannot be easily substituted and closed down will be ”high power price hubs”. If we imagine physical power prices as a topological map, geographically across Germany then the locations where coal fired power is needed will rise up like power price hill-tops amid a sea of lower power prices set by cheaper nat gas + CO2 or power prices depressed by high penetration of renewable energy.

Coal fired power generation used to be a cheap and safe power bet. Those forced to rely on coal fired power will however in the coming years face higher and higher, local power costs both in absolute terms and in relative terms to other non-coal-based power locations.

Coal fired power in Germany is increasingly very expensive both versus the cost of nat gas + CO2 and versus forward German power prices. Auch, it will hurt more and more for coal fired power producers and more and more for consumers needing to buy it.

Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

And if we graph in the most efficient nat gas power plants, CCGTs, then nat gas + CO2 is today mostly at the money for the nearest three years while coal + CO2 is way above both forward power prices and forward nat gas + CO2 costs. 

Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Number of hours in the year (normal year = 8760 hrs) when the cost of coal + CO2 and nat gas + CO2 in the German spot power market (hour by hour) historically has been in the money. Coal power used to run 7000 hours per year in 2012-2016, Baseload. Coal in Germany was only in-th-money for 3000 hours in 2023. That is versus the average, hourly system prices in Germany. But local, physical prices will likely have been higher where coal is concentrated and where there is no local substitution for coal in the short to medium term. Coal power will run more hours in those areas and local, physical prices need to be higher there to support the higher cost of coal + CO2.

Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

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