In the latest reminder that coal still dominates the world’s biggest energy consumer, Chinese power producers are warning of supply tightness while one northern province plans to pause switching homes and industries to natural gas to avoid further heating shortages.
Four of China’s biggest generators sent an "emergency report" dated Jan. 22 to the National Development & Reform Commission, the top economic planner, requesting help with thermal coal supply, according to China Business News. Meanwhile, Hebei, which surrounds Beijing, will stop approving coal-to-gas conversions in rural areas until new natural gas supply can be secured.
China has struggled for two years with President Xi Jinping’s drive to reform the country’s coal industry and use cleaner fuels. Efforts to limit coal supply in 2016 and encourage gas use last year overshot goals, causing price spikes and supply squeezes that sent regulators scrambling to restore balance.
China Shenhua Energy Co., the nation’s largest coal producer, led gains among miners in Hong Kong on Monday, rising as much as 7.8 percent, before closing up 4 percent to HK$24.75. Thermal coal futures on the Zhengzhou Commodity Exchange traded as high as 679.8 yuan ($107) a metric ton, the most for front-month price in more than six weeks.
“With or without the urgent call from the power utility companies, the government is already doing what it can to ensure coal supply, including relaxing limits on imports and asking miners to take fewer days off around Lunar New Year,” said Zeng Hao, an analyst with Shanxi-based Fenwei Energy, referring to the week-long holiday that starts around Feb. 16. “Coal prices will likely increase in the near term and will remain strong through the first quarter."
The report to the NDRC from the four generators -- China Huaneng Group, China Datang Corp., China Huadian Corp. and State Power Investment Corp. -- urged regulators to allow miners to operate at full capacity before the Lunar New Year and increase imports. They also sought greater government control on prices and a cap on transportation fees. China Guodian Corp., which merged with Shenhua’s parent company last year, wasn’t included in the letter.
While the National Bureau of Statistics said this month that coal’s role in total energy consumption inched lower last year, the world’s biggest producer and user of the fuel is targeting reducing its share to 58 percent, by far still the biggest source.
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Meanwhile, the pause in approving new coal-to-gas conversions in Hebei is “mainly to digest” unfinished projects still in the works, Lin Chen, an analyst with Nomura, wrote in a research note.
“After the gas shortage that occurred last year, we believe that central and provincial governments are reviewing their coal-to-gas replacement policies,” Chen wrote. “That means that although long-term growth remains intact, short-term risks might be inevitable for gas distributors.”
Hebei, China’s sixth-largest province by population, overshot it’s goal last year of converting customers to gas, switching more than 2.5 million households compared with a target of 1.8 million. Such conversions led to shortages of natural gas and forced the government to reverse course and let residents burn coal for heating.
The freeze on new coal-to-gas conversion projects in rural areas in Hebei excludes developments that started construction last year and aren’t finished, said an official from the province’s energy bureau who asked not to be identified because they aren’t authorized to speak publicly. The Paper earlier reported the suspension.
The project freeze creates short-term risks for natural gas distributors like China Gas Holdings Ltd., which have benefited as government support for the cleaner-burning fuel has propelled demand, according to Nomura. The company’s shares in Hong Kong fell as much as 7.7 percent before closing down 4 percent to HK$24.20 on Monday.
China Gas said in an emailed statement Hebei’s announcement “has no impact on us since we have already secured the conversion projects in the rural Hebei area for construction in 2018, and all related conversion work will proceed as scheduled.”
— With assistance by Dan Murtaugh, Aibing Guo, Feifei Shen, Jing Yang, Alfred Cang, and Sarah Chen