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Irina Slav

Irina Slav

Irina is a writer for Oilprice.com with over a decade of experience writing on the oil and gas industry.

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Soaring Energy Prices Become Major Headache For China

Europe is being ravaged by an unprecedented energy crisis, and it may already be spreading. Asia, the world's biggest buyer of gas and coal, may be next, with China particularly vulnerable because of the size of its economy.

Perhaps somewhat surprisingly, the big problem for China is not natural gas. It's coal, which powers the majority of its power plants, Bloomberg reported this week, citing state-run outlet China Energy News.

According to a report in the news outlet, Chinese power plant operators are finding it hard to buy enough coal to keep their facilities running, which is raising the likelihood of an energy crunch when winter comes. Inventories are low because of the surge in coal prices this year, and some power plants have already had to turn off their boilers to save costs.

It appears that just like the gas crisis in Europe, this one was years in the making. The European energy crunch should not have come as a surprise given Europe's decisive shift away from fossil fuels and the consequent underinvestment in local gas production, which made it almost entirely dependent on imports for its energy security. 

Likewise, China—along with India—is about to become the victim of underinvestment too, in coal. The dirtiest fossil fuel and the target of much energy transition work has fallen out of favor with investors so badly as they seek investment opportunities in renewable energy that the coal price spike this year must have come as quite a shock.

As Nikkei Asia reported earlier this month, benchmark coal was trading at $177.50 per ton on September 10. This was a more than twofold increase since the start of the year and an even bigger increase from the $50 per ton that benchmark coal was trading at a year earlier.

"What we are seeing is a dilemma for investors, financiers as well as companies," Shirley Zhang, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie, told Nikkei Asia. "Despite the effort of moving the whole region into a cleaner future, you still need coal for the next 10 years."

There is, indeed, a dilemma, and it is between a green transition and energy security. The surge in coal and gas prices is proving that the energy transition will be neither smooth nor easy, and government decisiveness in net-zero goals will be nowhere near enough to effect it. But there are more immediate implications of an energy crisis in China. It will spill globally.

In the UK, industries are already feeling the pinch of soaring gas—and electricity—prices. There is talk about blackouts, although energy minister Kwasi Kwarteng has assured the public these will not happen. But if industries are struggling, that's not good for inflation and economic growth. And China, while a much more centrally controlled economy than the UK, is not that different in the fundamentals. If electricity prices rise, the prices of everything else will rise, hitting growth.

What's worse is that if there is not enough coal and gas for China, there will not be enough gas and coal for everyone else who needs to import it. Countries with local coal and gas production will rake in a fortune from energy exports. But the rest, having to pay through the nose for that energy, will see the same effects on their economic growth, namely a potentially severe stumping.

A lot has been said about the emission aspect of fossil fuels. The current crisis offers another angle: fossil fuels tend to get expensive, sometimes prohibitively so, when demand significantly exceeds supply. This is, in fact, one of the strongest practical arguments in favor of renewables: you may not have gas reserves, but every country has sunshine and wind. Renewables are good for energy independence. And the latest crisis in Europe and the risk of a crisis in China only shows that we are nowhere near this energy independence. 

And we will likely never be.

By Irina Slav for Oilprice.com

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Leave a comment
  • George Doolittle on September 21 2021 said:
    "China declaring War on Australia" has nothing to do with "lacking investments" but in lashing out at Capitalism and investing in one's economy in the first place...with Putin doing much the same thing though showing a far greater willingness to go to War over the matter in the kinetic sense of the term (although technically defending the Sovereignty of Syria...not so Ukraine tho obviously.)

    Anyhow long the US Dollar, strong buy.
    $tsla Tesla should see sales soar as a result of this insane mess by so called "global leaders."

    Long $tsla Tesla Motors
    Strong buy
  • Mamdouh Salameh on September 22 2021 said:
    China is the one country in the world that can afford to buy energy resources whatever the prices are if necessary. The reason is that it is the world's largest economy based on purchasing power parity (PPP). Moreover, China’s economy will falter without oil, gas and coal. Still, being the world’s largest consumer of energy, China prefers affordable prices.

    There is enough oil, gas and coal to satisfy global demand at affordable prices. But this needs better management of global supply and continued investments in expanding production capacity.

    Soaring energy prices are a manifestation of the struggle between global transition to renewables and energy security.

    Unfortunately, renewables on their own aren’t capable of satisfying global demand for electricity, hence the rising demand for coal and natural gas by China, the EU, the United States and scores of other countries.

    Moreover, pressure on the global oil and gas industry to divest of its fossil fuel assets is exacerbating the problem. Unfortunately, the narrow-mindedness of the advocates of divestment adversely affects the supplies of fossil fuels not the global demand for them thus creating deficits in the market and skyrocketing prices.

    Dr Mamdouh G Salameh
    International Oil Economist
    Visiting Professor of Energy Economics at ESCP Europe Business School, London
  • Kay Uwe Boehm on September 22 2021 said:
    China produces half of world coal itself and stopped import from australia but increased import from russia and indonesia also from gas over new pipeline to russia with fixed price contracted higher than that time now maybe cheap gas but prices falling back since world gas reserves huge. and easy to make biologically or from nuclear, water and cold fusion power with electrolyse H2 + air CO2 in exotherm sabatier process free cycle with CO2 from air gas centrifuge also for green house CO2 fertilizing usable

Leave a comment




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