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Coal squeeze intensifies

The message from the top is clear: cut out coal. While the regulatory pressure has been evident for some time, the race to banish the black stuff stepped up a notch last week when a $5 trillion valued institutional investor group made up of many of the world’s largest insurers and pension schemes warned the companies they invest in not to finance, insure, build, develop or plan new thermal coal plants.

The statement came from the Net-Zero Asset Owner Alliance, whose members include Zurich, Allianz, Wespath and Munich Re.

The objective of the Group’s Thermal Coal Position paper is to encourage transition pathways towards decarbonisation. “Together, investors, governments and companies all have a responsibility to act on global emissions reduction. Additional thermal coal developments for energy generation are ultimately irreconcilable with the exercise of this responsibility,” the Alliance said.

The position paper is the latest in a stream of anti-coal rhetoric, putting increasing pressure on seaborne volumes through the 2020s. One recent coal casualty has been the withdrawal of investors in a South African multi-billion-dollar coal-fired power plant project, the 630 megawatt Thabametsi coal-based power plant project in the northern Limpopo province.

South Africa’s biggest state pension fund manager the Public Investment Corporation, and the Industrial Development Corporation, are no longer supporting the project, which was planned to come online in 2021. Newswire Reuters reports that the Development Bank of Southern Africa is also reassessing the project to determine if it is in line with its policy of a “just transition towards a low carbon economy”.

Falling from the peak

In the US, coal consumption has been declining since its peak in 2017 of 1.1 billion short tons. In 2019, US coal consumption totalled 590 million short tons, according to the US Energy Information Administration (EIA). However, despite projected growth in natural gas and renewable energy use to generate electricity through 2050, the EIA’s Annual Energy Outlook 2020 projects in its reference case that coal and nuclear power plants will collectively provide more than 25% of generation through 2050. End consumers and investors are pushing for that percentage to be reduced before the 30-year projection window is up.

According to data from the EIA, 121 US coal-fired power plants were repurposed to burn other types of fuels between 2011 and 2019, 103 of which were converted to or replaced by natural gas-fired plants. At the end of 2010, 316.8 gigawatts of coal-fired capacity existed in the US, but by the end of 2019, 49.2 gigawatts of that amount was retired, 14.3 gigawatts had the boiler converted to burn natural gas, and 15.3 gigawatts was replaced with natural gas combined cycle.

As the US coal-fired electric generation fleet continues to manage challenges from emission standards and low prices for natural gas, the EIA expects more of these conversions to take place in the future. The Administration has already been notified of eight planned natural gas combined cycle projects, five of which are currently under construction, which will replace existing coal plants.

Across the Atlantic, increased pressure is coming from the European Commission, which published revised emission reduction targets for 2030 in September, requiring greenhouse gas emissions to be reduced by at least 55% by 2030, compared with 1990 levels. This equates to a near-exit from coal by 2025, according to a report from consultant Climact and think-tank Ecologic analysing the EC’s impact assessment. The analysis found that coal could only represent around 2% of the EU’s energy mix under any scenario meeting the target, down from the previous target of 15%.

In its own impact assessment, the EC states that it expects coal to become “marginal in final energy demand in 2030, driven by reductions in industry and the declared policies in a number of Member States to reduce coal for heating purposes, as well as the required increase in uptake of renewables”. While most EU countries have set coal phase-out plans that would end its use before 2030, Romania, Bulgaria, Czechia, Slovenia and Croatia have not set any coal phase-out date yet.

Local law changes are also putting the dampeners on future global coal supply. For example, in Vietnam a new law on public-private partnerships (PPP) that comes into effect next year creates new hurdles for foreign coal investors. The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis’ energy finance analyst Thu Vu predicts that the new regulatory challenges, coupled with market challenges, will likely prove too onerous for foreign investors in four of the 15 remaining coal power projects in Vietnam’s pipeline: Nam Dinh 1, Vung Ang 2, Vinh Tan 3 and Song Hau 2. These projects have not yet reached the commissioning phase, with contractual agreements still waiting for official sign-off.

“South Korean, Japanese and Chinese investors will likely struggle with changes brought about by the new PPP Law,” said Vu. “In provinces such as Binh Thuan where the proposed Japanese-backed Vinh Tan 3 will reside, renewable energy alternatives have been tried and tested in the past two years, with more solar and wind capacity awaiting in the pipeline. Vung Ang 2’s Ha Tinh province is also seeing a pick-up in renewable investments. Furthermore, local opposition to more polluting coal power in these areas is fierce, compromising the ability of project sponsors to mobilise local government support for their projects.”

Thermal coal imports are still expected to rise in 2020 into the Southeast Asia region as a whole – indeed, the ASEAN region may be the only remaining bright spot for coal as other regions put the squeeze on demand and production. In recognition of this the ASEAN Centre for Energy and the World Coal Association signed a Memorandum of Understanding last week with WCA chief executive Michelle Manook stressing that coal is a “critical enabler in emerging economies for economic growth, particularly those across the ASEAN region. Ms Manook added that the ASEAN region has the right to affordable sources of energy and to build their societies through the crucial role coal plays in steel and cement production – offering a pocket of hope for those in the coal broking, trading and moving industries.
Source: Baltic Exchange

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