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Coal benefits most from European cold snap

Coal-fired power output across Western Europe benefited most from the very cold weather at the start of March with on-year gains for nuclear, hydro and wind almost offsetting the demand spikes, TSO data aggregated by S&P Global Platts Analytics for the first days of March shows.

Gas-fired output, meanwhile, was down on the year as bullish outright gas prices pushed gas-fired generation margins into deeply negative territory with Dutch day-ahead gas spiking to a record-high on March 1 driven by ‘panic’ in the UK gas market as the cold spell boosted demand with very low storage levels, Platts’ pricing data shows.

Overall, the recent cold snap saw the first significant widening of the so-called ‘thermal gap’ across Continental Europe’s four biggest power markets this winter, but with only German and Spanish gas output up on the year in early March, the Platts Analytics data shows.

The ‘thermal gap’ is the top part of the merit order where coal and gas plants compete as the price-setting forms of power generation. The size of the thermal gap is set by variations in demand, renewables output and conventional plant availability.

So far this winter season (October-March), gas plant output is on average 3.9 GW lower than the previous winter, while coal plant output this winter season is down 5.4 GW on the year.

But within the ‘thermal gap’ there has been a swing from gas to coal during Q1 with worsening gas generation margins despite coal generation margins also hitting record-lows as EUA carbon allowances more than doubled since last Summer to over Eur10/mt, Platts fuel switching data shows.

In the first six days of March, gas plant output across the four nations was down 5.1 GW, while coal output was up 7.8 GW, the limited data sample covering the cold snap shows.

Across Continental Europe, only France has a lower average power demand so far this winter season as a very mild January saw demand plunge 13 GW compared to a very cold January 2017, the data shows.

In the recent cold snap, however, French power demand spiked above 95 GW, a level not reached since 2012, with average demand so far this March up almost 9 GW, the data shows with France by far the most temperature-sensitive power market.

Those demand gains, meanwhile, were almost offset by higher hydro, nuclear and renewables across the region with hydro output recovering from near record-lows at the start of winter to an almost 5 GW gain for Q1 and the first week in March compared to the previous year’s period, the data shows.

Nuclear output across France and Germany was 4 GW higher than a year ago in early March, with only Spain seeing a drop in nuclear.

For the winter season so far, both hydro and nuclear output are now ahead of 2016/17 levels, the aggregated data shows with wind output so far this winter still over 8 GW above last winter despite much calmer conditions for much of February.

In contrast to the cold snap in January 2017, this late winter cold spell coincided with windy and at times sunny conditions with Germany registering its first 50 GW spike for wind and solar output on March 1 around midday, a separate set of hourly TSO data aggregated by Fraunhofer ISE shows.
Source: Platts

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