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When affordable gas and expensive carbon puts coal in the corner

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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 at SEB
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.

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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.

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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.

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Coal fired power in Germany is increasingly very expensive
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. 

EUR/MWh
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.

Number of hours in the year
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Analys

German solar power prices are collapsing as market hits solar saturation

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German solar power producers got a price haircut of 87% over the past 10 days. German solar power producers have over the past 10 days received a volume weighted power price of only EUR 9.1/MWh. The average power price during non-solar-power-hours was in comparison EUR 70.6/MWh. Solar power producers thus got an 87% cut in the power price they get when they produce vs. the power price during non-solar-power-hours. This is what happens to power prices when the volume of unregulated power becomes equally big or bigger than demand: Prices collapse when unregulated power produces the most.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Massive growth in solar power installations in Germany in 2023 is leading to destruction of solar hour prices and solar profitability. Germany installed a record 14,280 MW of solar power capacity According to ’PV Magazine International’. That is close to twice as much as in 2022. Total installed solar capacity reached 81.7 GW at the end of 2023 according to ’Renewables Now’. Average German demand load was in comparison 52.2 GW. So total solar capacity reached almost 30 GW above average demand. Solar power produces the most during summer when demand is lower. The overshoot is thus much larger than the 30 GW mentioned when it matters.

The collapse in solar-hour-power-prices implies a collapse in solar power producer earnings unless the earnings of the installations are secured with subsidies or by PPAs. It also means that there is a sharp reduction in the earnings potential for new solar power projects. The exponential growth in new installations of solar capacity we have seen to date is likely to come to an abrupt halt. There is however most likely still a large range of solar power projects under construction in Germany which will be finalized before growth in new capacity comes to a halt. The problem of solar power production curbs (you are not allowed to produce at all) and solar power price destruction is likely to escalate yet higher before new growth in supply comes to a halt. 

Focus will now shift from solar production capacity growth to grid improvements, batteries and adaptive demand. All consumers are of course happy for cheap power as long as they are able to consume it when it is cheap. At the moment they can’t. But the incentive to be inventive is now super high. The focus will now likely shift from solar power production growth to grids, batteries, adaptive demand and all possible ways to utilize ”free power”. This will over time exhaust the availability of ”free power” and drive solar-hour-power-prices back up. This again will then eventually open for renewed growth in solar power capacity growth.

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It is probably much worse down in the grid. What is worth noting is that these numbers are for all of Germany average. Solar power congestion is much worse in the local grids all around Germany along with local grid capacity constraints ect.

The problem of solar power is high concentration of production: 80% of German solar production was produced during 22.3% of the hours in the year in 2023. What is also worth mentioning is that solar power production is extremely concentrated in relatively few hours per year. It produces in the middle of the day and during summer. In 2023 German solar power produced 80% of its production in only 22.3% of the hours of the year. This basically implies that once solar power production reaches 22.3% of total power supply (without batteries), then solar-hour-power-prices will likely collapse. Solar power production reached 55 TWh in 2023. That’s a lot but it is still only 12% of total demand of 458 TWh in 2023. What it means is that the acute problem of solar-hour-power-price-destruction sets in much before the ”theoretical 22.3%” mentioned above.

On the 21 Feb 2024 we wrote the following note on this issue: ”The self-destructive force of unregulated solar power” where we highlighted these issues and warned that this will likely be a process of ”First gradually. Then suddenly”.

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German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.

German solar power capacity makes a big leap upwards in 2023 as the energy crisis hurt everybody. Demand went down. Now there is a large overcapacity in installed solar effect vs. demand load.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, PV Magazine, Wikipedia, Blberg data on German power demand

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.

German solar power producers got an 87% price haircut on average during last 10 days vs. those who produced during non-solar-power hours.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.

Volume weighted solar power prices vs. non-solar-hours. Bigger and bigger discount.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.

Solar power production and German power prices over the past 10 days.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.

Solar power production and German power prices on 27 April 2024.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, data by Blbrg
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Analys

Firm at $85

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SEB - analysbrev på råvaror

This week, Brent Crude prices have strengthened by USD 1.2 per barrel since Monday’s opening. While macroeconomic concerns persist, market reactions have been subdued, with price fluctuations primarily driven by fundamental factors. Currently, the oil price stands at its weekly high of USD 84.4 per barrel, with Wednesday’s low recorded at USD 81.7 per barrel, indicating relatively normal price movements throughout the week.

Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB
Ole R. Hvalbye, Analyst Commodities, SEB

The upward trajectory since Wednesday afternoon can be attributed to two main factors:

Firstly, Wednesday’s US inventory report, though mixed, conveyed a bullish sentiment to the market due to an overall decline in commercial inventories. The report from the US Department of Energy (DOE) revealed a draw in US crude inventories of 1.4 million barrels last week, surpassing consensus estimates of a 2.0-million-barrel draw –  the American Petroleum Institute’s (API) forecast of a 0.5-million-barrel build on Tuesday.

Additionally, a marginal improvement in refinery margins hints at healthier demand prospects leading up to the driving season. While commercial crude oil inventories (excluding Strategic Petroleum Reserve) decreased, standing approximately 3% below the five-year average for this period, total gasoline inventories saw a notable increase of 0.9 million barrels compared to the consensus forecast of a decrease of 1.1 million barrels. Distillate fuel inventories experienced a more moderate increase in line with expectations, rising by 0.6 million barrels but remaining approximately 7% below the five-year average. Overall, total inventories (crude + gasoline + distillate) showed a marginal increase of 0.1 million barrels, coupled with a 1% improvement in refinery utilization to 88.5% last week (see pages 11 and 18 attached).

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The substantial draw in commercial crude inventories, particularly compared to the typical seasonal build, has emerged as a key price driver (see page 12 attached).

Secondly, the third consecutive day of oil price gains can be attributed to renewed optimism regarding US rate cuts, supported by positive US jobs data suggesting potential Federal Reserve rate cuts this year. This optimism has boosted risk assets and weakened the dollar, rendering commodities more appealing to buyers.

In a broader context, crude oil prices have been moderating since early last month amidst easing tensions in the Middle East. Attention is also focused on OPEC+, with Russia, a key member, exceeding production targets ahead of the cartel’s upcoming meeting. Expectations are widespread for an extension of output cuts during the next meeting.

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Conversely, providing support to global crude prices is the Biden administration’s intention to increase the price ceiling for refilling US strategic petroleum reserves to as much as USD 79.99 per barrel.

With geopolitical tensions relatively subdued, but lingering, the market remains vigilant in analyzing data and fundamentals. Our outlook for oil prices at USD 85 per barrel for 2024 remains firm and attainable for the foreseeable future.

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Analys

Diesel concerns drags Brent lower but OPEC+ will still get the price it wants in Q3

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Brent rallied 2.5% last week on bullish inventories and bullish backdrop. Brent crude gained 2.5% last week with a close of the week of USD 89.5/b which also was the highest close of the week. The bullish drivers were: 1) Commercial crude and product stocks declined 3.8 m b versus a normal seasonal rise of 4.4 m b, 2) Solid gains in front-end Brent crude time-spreads indicating a tight crude market, and 3) A positive backdrop of a 2.7% gain in US S&P 500 index.

Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB
Bjarne Schieldrop, Chief analyst commodities, SEB

Brent falling back 1% on diesel concerns this morning. But positive backdrop may counter it later. This morning Brent crude is pulling back 0.9% to USD 88.7/b counter to the fact that the general backdrop is positive with a weaker USD, equity gains both in Asia and in European and US futures and not the least also positive gains in industrial metals with copper trading up 0.4% at USD 10 009/ton. This overall positive market backdrop clearly has the potential to reverse the initial bearish start of the week as we get a little further into the Monday trading session.

Diesel concerns at center stage. The bearish angle on oil this morning is weak diesel demand with diesel forward curves in front-end contango and predictions for lower refinery runs in response this down the road. I.e. that the current front-end strength in crude curves (elevated backwardation) reflecting a current tight crude market will dissipate in not too long due to likely lower refinery runs. 

But gasoline cracks have rallied. Diesel weakness is normal this time of year. Overall refining margin still strong. Lots of focus on weakness in diesel demand and cracks. But we need to remember that we saw the same weakness last spring in April and May before the diesel cracks rallied into the rest of the year. Diesel cracks are also very seasonal with natural winter-strength and likewise natural summer weakness. What matters for refineries is of course the overall refining margin reflecting demand for all products. Gasoline cracks have rallied to close to USD 24/b in ARA for the front-month contract. If we compute a proxy ARA refining margin consisting of 40% diesel, 40% gasoline and 20% bunkeroil we get a refining margin of USD 14/b which is way above the 2015-19 average of only USD 6.5/b. This does not take into account the now much higher costs to EU refineries of carbon prices and nat gas prices. So the picture is a little less rosy than what the USD 14/b may look like.

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The Russia/Ukraine oil product shock has not yet fully dissipated. What stands out though is that the oil product shock from the Russian war on Ukraine has dissipated significantly, but it is still clearly there. Looking at below graphs on oil product cracks the Russian attack on Ukraine stands out like day and night in February 2022 and oil product markets have still not fully normalized.

Oil market gazing towards OPEC+ meeting in June. OPEC+ will adjust to get the price they want. Oil markets are increasingly gazing towards the OPEC+ meeting in June when the group will decide what to do with production in Q3-24. Our view is that the group will adjust production as needed to gain the oil price it wants which typically is USD 85/b or higher. This is probably also the general view in the market.

Change in US oil inventories was a bullish driver last week.

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Change in US oil inventories was a bullish driver last week.
Source: SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data, US EIA

Crude oil time-spreads strengthened last week

Crude oil time-spreads strengthened last week
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

ICE gasoil forward curve has shifted from solid backwardation to front-end contango signaling diesel demand weakness. Leading to concerns for lower refinery runs and softer crude oil demand by refineries down the road.

ICE gasoil forward curve
Source: Blbrg

ARA gasoline crack has rallied towards while Gasoil crack has fallen back. Not a totally unusual pattern.

ARA gasoline crack has rallied towards while Gasoil crack has fallen back. Not a totally unusual pattern.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Proxy ARA refining margin with 40% gasoil crack, 40% gasoline crack and 20% bunker oil crack.

Proxy ARA refining margin with 40% gasoil crack, 40% gasoline crack and 20% bunker oil crack.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

ARA diesel cracks saw the exact same pattern last year. Dipping low in April and May before rallying into the second half of the year. Diesel cracks have fallen back but are still clearly above normal levels both in spot and on the forward curve. I.e. the ”Russian diesel stress” hasn’t fully dissipated quite yet.

ARA diesel cracks
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

Net long specs fell back a little last week.

Net long specs fell back a little last week.
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data

52-week ranking of net long speculative positions in Brent and WTI as well as 52-week ranking of the strength of the Brent 1-7 mth backwardation

52-week ranking of net long speculative positions in Brent and WTI as well as 52-week ranking of the strength of the Brent 1-7 mth backwardation
Source:  SEB calculations and graph, Blbrg data
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