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Europe’s Gas-to-Coal Conundrum

Economics

By Connor McLean  |  August 19, 2021

Europe is in a bit of a bind. On one hand, the European Union (EU) wants to lead the way on renewable energy and climate change mitigation. On the other, Europe wants to keep the lights on. European gas storage stocks have struggled to recover following a cold winter, potentially leaving Europe extremely short on gas as winter approaches. As a result, natural gas prices in Europe have risen sharply. High natural gas prices have allowed other forms of energy, namely coal, to become more economical this summer. The rise in economical coal generation has been reflected in the steep decline in the clean spark spread and the increase in coal-fired generation in Germany. Here we review pricing dynamics in Europe and the potential implications for U.S. liquefied natural gas (LNG) exports.

One method of evaluating the economic viability of a fuel source is through spark and dark spreads (for gas and coal, respectively). Each spread represents the theoretical generation margin by subtracting the cost to acquire each fuel from the price of electricity. However, Europe has the additional cost of emissions which are covered by purchasing allowances through the EU Emissions Trading System (ETS). At nearly $65 per metric ton, this has a substantial impact on the economics of generation. Factoring in the cost of emissions results in a “clean” spread, that is, the profit margin after accounting for the environmental cost.

historical-spreads

The surge in gas prices in Europe has crushed the clean spark spread this summer. At average daily power prices (base), the clean spark spread is averaging $1.67/MMBtu less than the clean dark spread since the beginning of July. Even at peak daily power prices, the clean spark spread is now at parity with the clean dark spread. This indicates that the variable cost of coal generation is more economical than gas generation for most observed gas prices.

daily-spread

The relative rise in economical coal generation is evidenced by increased electric generation in Germany, Europe’s largest coal consumer. German coal generation rebounded above 2019 levels in June and July, coinciding with the increase in pricing at Netherland’s Title Transfer Facility (TTF). Not only is coal generation now averaging over 0.4 GWh/d for the summer, the share of Germany’s total electric generation has now climbed back up over 25% after falling below 20% in 2020. Some of this can be attributed to the rebound in economic activity post-COVID, but sustained pricing at current levels could force Germany’s continued reliance on coal.

coal-generation

Indeed, at current strip pricing, coal should continue to be economical through 2022. While TTF pricing is expected to come down from current highs above $15/MMBtu, low European gas storage inventories will continue to support gas prices. The 2022 strip is still averaging over $11/MMBtu and with coal prices also expected to fall, the clean dark spread is currently projected to average $0.60/MMBtu less than the clean spark spread for the balance of 2022. To encourage more natural gas burn next year, emissions pricing will need to rise to make coal less economical compared to natural gas.

futures-prices

As part of Europe’s Fit for 55 package, the EU has proposed further reducing the emissions cap under the cap and trade system. While that will have a positive impact on reducing emissions by disincentivizing coal generation, it would place even more pressure on the European gas market. Given the already bullish outlook for natural gas prices in Europe, U.S. LNG exports should continue to receive price support through 2022 and beyond.

You can find BTU Analytics’ LNG forecast and drivers in the monthly Henry Hub Outlook publication. BTU Analytics is a FactSet Company.

This article was originally published on the BTU Analytics web site.

The information contained in this article is not investment advice. FactSet does not endorse or recommend any investments and assumes no liability for any consequence relating directly or indirectly to any action or inaction taken based on the information contained in this article.

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Connor McLean

Energy Analyst, BTU Analytics, a FactSet Company

Mr. Connor McLean is an Energy Analyst at BTU Analytics, a FactSet Company. In this role, he focuses on natural gas modeling and research. Prior to joining BTU Analytics, Connor held internships with Total and EDF Trading, building models to analyze pricing trends in the natural gas and power markets. Mr. McLean holds a B.S. in geology and a master’s degree in financial management from Texas A&M University.

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