Japanese utility Kansai Electric lost all its nuclear output in March, following a court injunction challenging the recent restart of its Takahama 3 and 4 reactors. On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, for the citizens of Brazil, rain proved a welcome distraction from the country’s political crisis, while in Syria an uneasy truce has broken out amongst the country’s warring factions.
In the ancient city of Rome, the executives of Italian oil and gas major Eni are pondering the wisdom of a multi-billion dollar investment decision in Mozambique, a decision they expect to take this year – but also one they had hoped to take last year. The thread that binds these seemingly disconnected events together, and which would change the regional East African economy forever, is LNG.
Japan is the world’s largest consumer of LNG and national demand for the commodity hit record highs in the aftermath of the devastating Fukushima nuclear disaster. That calamitous event saw all of the country’s substantial nuclear capacity come offline, raising oil, LNG and coal demand in a desperate attempt to generate enough electricity to keep the economy afloat.
Japan’s LNG imports jumped from 85.90 Bcm in 2009 to 120.6 Bcm in 2014, representing 36.2% of world LNG trade. The country’s coal demand rose from 108.8 million tons of oil equivalent to 128.6 mtoe in 2013, and the disaster briefly reversed a decade-long decline in Japanese oil demand.
However, Fukushima also sparked a boom in solar power, one of the few technologies that offers both a reduction in Japan’s dependency on imported energy commodities and lower greenhouse gas emissions, and, perhaps long-term, a deeper structural shift in the country’s primary energy supply. Japanese LNG demand is set to decline over the long-term, and, if the world’s largest LNG market is contracting, LNG suppliers need to look elsewhere for demand growth.
Rainfall in the Amazon
They could look to Latin America. Back across the Pacific, as the Takahama reactor turbines slowed, the residents of Sao Paulo, South America’s largest city, reached their arms into the air to welcome the rain. Brazil has been suffering a savage two-year drought, which has led to sometimes severe water rationing. Throughout 2015, Sao Paulo’s largest reservoir, Cantareira, was churning the muddy water below pump level.
Levels in Brazil’s vast hydroelectric reservoirs plummeted. Given the country’s dependence on hydropower, the only alternative was to ramp up LNG imports, a situation faced by all of the continent’s major economies. Between 2009 and 2014, South and Central America’s LNG imports leapt from 3.27 Bcm to 21.4 Bcm, an almost sevenfold increase, marking the emergence of a major new, but volatile, market for the commodity. However, how consistent this demand proves to be depends on the rain and Argentina’s ability to develop its own massive shale oil and gas reserves.
Sending coal to Newcastle
Perhaps more surprisingly, given its own natural gas endowment, the Middle East too has become a new market for LNG. Kuwait, Egypt, Israel and the United Arab Emirates all now import LNG. Conflict and political division have long obstructed the development of regional gas pipelines that would have made these LNG import facilities unnecessary. Peace in Syria, if it holds long term, could ultimately see the resumption of plans to pipe gas between the states of the Middle East and perhaps even further afield to Europe. But then again, peace may prove a double-edged sword for LNG; many of today’s LNG importers are potentially tomorrow’s exporters.
Surplus to requirements
The LNG industry has already entered a period of surplus and has a long list of projects under construction on which it is too late to turn back. This will bring ever-rising supply out to 2020. Yet what were once flourishing markets now look less certain, a reminder that expectations can change radically in less than a decade. The spot price of LNG is now close to a fifth of post-Fukushima levels.
As the Argentinean government moves to protect the development of its shale oil and gas reserves from low prices, perhaps the most salutary reminder of all is the US shale revolution. Seen less than a decade ago as huge new market for LNG imports, the US is on the cusp of becoming a major exporter.
Decision time in Rome
What then for the executives in Rome? Do they commit billions of dollars to their giant gas finds offshore East Africa, gambling that Japanese public opinion will turn against its nuclear industry, that rainfall in the Amazon basin will be low, that Argentina will fail in its quest for energy independence, and that the Middle East will never achieve meaningful inter-regional energy cooperation?
And what of renewables, which in Europe and the United States now hold the largest share of newly- installed generating capacity? The renewables boom continues to spread and its technologies to develop, boosted by the historic Paris Agreement on Climate Change agreed upon last December.
Yet coal use worldwide appears to be peaking and its fall may prove LNG’s opportunity. The short-term outlook appears fairly certain; LNG is in oversupply and will remain cheap for the next two to three years at least, but this itself may give it a more central role in countries’ energy plans. That is the gamble that companies hoping to develop new projects must consider. LNG is the cleanest of the fossil fuels, but a
fossil fuel nonetheless and an imported one to boot.
Ross McCracken, Managing editor, Energy Economist
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A month ago, the world witnessed something never thought possible – negative oil prices. A perfect storm of events – the Covid-19 lockdowns, the resulting effect on demand, an ongoing oil supply glut, a worrying shortage of storage space and (crucially) the expiry of the NYMEX WTI benchmark contract for May, resulted in US crude oil prices falling as low as -US$37/b. Dragging other North American crude markers like Louisiana Light and Western Canadian Select along with it, the unique situation meant that crude sellers were paying buyers to take the crude off their hands before the May contract expired, or risk being stuck with crude and nowhere to store it. This was seen as an emblem of the dire circumstances the oil industry was in, and although prices did recover to a more normal US$10-15/b level after the benchmark contract switched over to June, there was immense worry that the situation would repeat itself.
Thankfully, it has not.
On May 19, trade in the NYMEX WTI contract for June delivery was retired and ticked over into a new benchmark for July delivery. Instead of a repeat of the meltdown, the WTI contract rose by US$1.53 to reach US$33.49/b, closing the gap with Brent that traded at US$35.75b. In the space of a month, US crude prices essentially swung up by US$70/b. What happened?
The first reason is that the market has learnt its lesson. The meltdown in April came because of an overleveraged market tempted by low crude oil prices in hope of selling those cargoes on later at a profit. That sort of strategic trading works fine in a normal situation, but against an abnormal situation of rapidly-shrinking storage space saw contract holders hold out until the last minute then frantically dumping their contracts to avoid having to take physical delivery. Bruised by this – and probably embarrassed as well – it seems the market has taken precautions to avoid a recurrence. Settling contracts early was one mechanism. Funds and institutions have also reduced their positions, diminishing the amount of contracts that need to be settled. The structural bottleneck that precipitated the crash was largely eliminated.
The second is that the US oil complex has adjusted itself quickly. Some 2 mmb/d of crude production has been (temporarily) idled, reducing supply. The gradual removal of lockdowns in some US states, despite medical advisories, has also recovered some demand. This week, crude draws in Cushing, Oklahoma rose for the second consecutive week, reaching a record figure of 5.6 million barrels. That increase in demand and the parallel easing of constrained storage space meant that last month’s panic was not repeated. The situation is also similar worldwide. With China now almost at full capacity again and lockdowns gradually removed in other parts of the world, the global crude marker Brent also rose to a 2-month high. The new OPEC+ supply deal seems to be working, especially with Saudi Arabia making an additional voluntary cut of 1 mmb/d. The oil world is now moving rapidly towards a new normal.
How long will this last? Assuming that the Covid-19 pandemic is contained by Q3 2020, then oil prices could conceivably return to their previous support level of US$50/b. That is a big assumption, however. The Covid-19 situation is still fragile, with major risks of additional waves. In China and South Korea, where the pandemic had largely been contained, recent detection of isolated new clusters prompted strict localised lockdowns. There is also worry that the US is jumping the gun in easing restrictions. In Russia and Brazil – countries where the advice to enforce strict lockdowns was ignored as early warning signs crept in – the number of cases and deaths is still rising rapidly. Brazil is a particular worry, as President Jair Bolosnaro is a Covid-19 skeptic and is still encouraging normal behaviour in spite of the accelerating health crisis there. On the flip side, crude output may not respond to the increase in demand as easily, as many clusters of Covid-19 outbreaks have been detected in key crude producing facilities worldwide. Despite this, some US shale producers have already restarted their rigs, spurred on by a need to service their high levels of debt. US pipeline giant Energy Transfer LP has already reported that many drillers in the Permian have resumed production, citing prices in the high-US$20/b level as sufficient to cover its costs.
The recovery is ongoing. But what is likely to happen is an erratic recovery, with intermittent bouts of mini-booms and mini-busts. Consultancy IHS Markit Energy Advisory envisions a choppy recovery with ‘stop-and-go rallies’ over 2020 – particularly in the winter flu season – heading towards a normalisation only in 2021. It predicts that the market will only recover to pre-Covid 19 levels in the second half of 2021, and a smooth path towards that only after a vaccine is developed and made available, which will be late 2020 at the earliest. The oil market has moved from certain doom to cautious optimism in the space of a month. But it will take far longer for the entire industry to regain its verve without any caveats.
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Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
As mitigation efforts to contain the 2019 novel coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic continue to lead to rapid declines in petroleum consumption around the world, the production of liquid fuels globally has changed more slowly, leading to record increases in the amount of crude oil and other petroleum liquids placed into storage in recent months. In its May Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) expects global inventory builds will be largest in the first half of 2020. EIA estimates that inventory builds rose at a rate of 6.6 million barrels per day (b/d) in the first quarter and will increase by 11.5 million b/d in the second quarter because of widespread travel limitations and sharp reductions in economic activity.
After the first half of 2020, EIA expects global liquid fuels consumption to increase, leading to inventory draws for at least six consecutive quarters and ultimately putting upward pressure on crude oil prices that are currently at their lowest levels in 20 years.
As with the March and April STEO, EIA’s forecast reductions in global oil demand arise from three main drivers: lower economic growth, less air travel, and other declines in demand not captured by these two categories, largely related to reductions in travel because of stay-at-home orders. Based on incoming economic data and updated assessments of lockdowns and stay-at-home orders across dozens of countries, EIA has further lowered its forecasts for global oil demand in 2020 in the May STEO. The STEO is based on macroeconomic projections by Oxford Economics (for countries other than the United States) and by IHS Markit (for the United States).
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
In the May STEO, EIA forecasts global liquid fuels consumption will average 92.6 million b/d in 2020, down 8.1 million b/d from 2019. EIA forecasts both economic growth and global consumption of liquid fuels to increase in 2021 but remain lower than 2019 levels. Any lasting behavioral changes to patterns in transportation and other forms of oil consumption once COVID-19 mitigation efforts end, however, present considerable uncertainty to the increase in consumption of liquid fuels, even if gross domestic product (GDP) growth increases.
Members of the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and partner countries (OPEC+) agreed to new production cuts in early April that will remain in place throughout the STEO forecast period ending in 2021. EIA assumes OPEC members will mostly adhere to announced cuts during the first two months of the agreement (May and June) and that production compliance will relax later in the forecast period as stated production cuts are reduced and global oil demand begins growing.
EIA forecasts OPEC crude oil production will fall to less than 24.1 million b/d in June, a 6.3 million b/d decline from April, when OPEC production increased following an inconclusive meeting in March. If OPEC production declines to less than 24.1 million b/d, it would be the group’s lowest level of production since March 1995. The forecast for June OPEC production does not account for the additional voluntary cuts announced by Saudi Arabia’s Energy Ministry on May 11.
EIA expects OPEC production will begin increasing in July 2020 in response to rising global oil demand and prices. From that point, EIA expects a gradual increase in OPEC crude oil production through the remainder of the forecast and for production to rise to an average of 28.5 million b/d during the second half of 2021.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Short-Term Energy Outlook (STEO), May 2020
EIA forecasts the supply of non-OPEC petroleum and other liquid fuels will decline by 2.4 million b/d in 2020 compared with 2019. The steep decline reflects lower forecast oil prices in the second quarter as well as the newly implemented production cuts from non-OPEC participants in the OPEC+ agreement. EIA expects the largest non-OPEC production declines in 2020 to occur in Russia, the United States, and Canada.
Pairing renewable energy generators with energy storage, particularly batteries, is increasingly common as the cost of energy storage continues to decrease. The U.S. Energy Information Administration’s (EIA) latest inventory of electric generators shows that the number of solar and wind generation sites co-located with batteries has grown from 19 paired sites in 2016 to 53 paired sites in 2019. This trend is expected to continue: according to planned installations reported to EIA, another 56 facilities pairing renewable energy and battery storage will come online by the end of 2023.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Annual Electric Generator Report
Note: Many battery systems provide more than one application.
Combining energy storage with renewable technologies such as wind and solar provides a variety of benefits. One of the most critical is the ability to store energy as it is generated and then redistribute it when needed, rather than as it is produced. This ability reduces the need to curtail renewable generation and allows the energy to be deployed during periods of high electricity demand.
Although the most commonly reported application for batteries co-located with renewable sources is storing excess energy, the majority of batteries serve more than one function. Frequency regulation, which helps maintain the grid’s electric frequency on a second-to-second basis, is the second-most common use for batteries co-located with renewables. Batteries can also provide transmission and distribution support, helping to smooth out energy flows. The ability to support the integration of renewables into the grid’s current infrastructure, in addition to other ancillary services that they perform such as frequency regulation, are primary drivers in the growth of battery-renewable pairings.
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Preliminary Monthly Electric Generator Inventory
Currently, more than 90% of the total operating hybrid (renewable generator plus energy storage) capacity in the country is located in just nine states. Texas alone has 46% of the current total. Hybrid capacity in the United States is concentrated at a few large sites, and 10 facilities account for more than half of total operational capacity. Installation as part of a hybrid system is common for batteries but not for renewable generators such as wind and solar. Although nearly 25% of total U.S. battery capacity is installed as part of a hybrid system, only 1% of total wind capacity and 2% of total solar capacity is part of a hybrid system.
Reported data show that future projects will be much larger in scale than currently operating projects. One anticipated projected in Nevada called Gemini Solar is expected to add more than one gigawatt of combined renewable and storage capacity. The U.S. Department of the Interior approved the Gemini Solar project on May 11, 2020, and the first phase of construction is expected to begin in 2021. By the end of 2023, average renewable capacity at proposed U.S. facilities will more than double from 34 megawatts (MW) to 75 MW, and average battery capacity will grow from 5 MW to 36 MW.