King coal rules in Japan as power utilities in thrall to low-cost fuel

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese utilities will rely on the return of coal-fired power plants from maintenance to meet peak electricity demand this summer, highlighting the country’s dependence on the more polluting fuel instead of natural gas.

Coal-power stations capable of producing 10,437 megawatts (MW) of electricity will be fired up in the next few weeks, a Reuters survey of the companies shows.

The return of these units illustrates Japan’s inability to shake off coal as a mainstay fuel for its power generation despite pledges to reduce carbon emissions under the 2015 Paris climate agreement and even as the country remains the world’s largest liquefied natural gas (LNG) buyer.

Coal remains the cheapest fuel source for Japanese utilities as long-term contracts for cleaner burning LNG have risen this year since they are tied to the price of crude oil, which is up 25% in 2019.

As a percentage of Japan’s generation units, Japan’s gas-fired power capacity is nearly double that of coal. But utilities rely more on coal as a so-called baseload source, providing a continuous supply of electricity, while gas units are typically ramped up quickly to meet surges in demand.

Japan’s average import price for LNG in May was $9.41 per million British thermal units (mmBtu), according to the country’s trade bureau. Meanwhile, spot LNG prices dropped to $4.30 per mmBtu as of last week amid slowing demand.

However, Japan in May paid $4.26 per mmBtu for thermal coal supplies from Australia, which provided two-thirds of imports.

“Unless they are mandated or pushed to switch off coal we think the economic case is relatively limited to encourage more LNG use at the expense of coal,” said Giles Farrer, research director, global LNG, at Wood Mackenzie. “The price levers don’t support it on an overall basis.”

Japanese utilities are unable to dip into the cheaper spot LNG market because so much of their supply is being met by the existing higher-priced long-term contracts.

That is a hangover from the 2011 Fukushima nuclear disaster that shuttered the country’s reactors which had met 30% of Japan’s power needs. Without the nuclear power, utilities rushed to sign gas contracts, which are just starting to kick in.

Coal power is expected to provide 285.7 billion kilowatt hours (kWh) of electricity in the year through March 2020, an increase of 3.3% over the previous twelve months, according to supply plans submitted by utilities and generators to the government and published by Japan’s power grid monitor.

Generation from LNG is expected to fall almost 9% to 347.1 billion kWh during the same period, according to the grid monitor, the Organization for Cross-regional Coordination of Transmission Operators.

(GRAPHIC - Japan's LNG costs:

JERA, Japan’s biggest power generator and LNG buyer, Kansai Electric Power, the country’s second-largest power company, and seven other operators will have brought back 18 coal-fired power plants in the next few weeks, the companies told Reuters in responses to a survey on their LNG and coal use.

They all said they would restart coal plants once maintenance was completed, with JERA starting up 2,300 MW of coal power in recent days.

Japanese utilities typically put coal stations into maintenance in between the winter and peak demand seasons.

(GRAPHIC - Japan long-term LNG import contract volumes:

LNG makes up 25.9% of Japan’s overall generation capacity while coal accounts for 14.9% of the capacity, according to the grid monitor.

However, the utilities will run their coal plants much closer to their actual capacity than the gas plants. For coal plants, this capacity factor will be 73% of their full output in 2019, down 0.2 percentage points from 2018, according to the grid operator data.

The capacity factor for gas plants in 2019 is forecast to fall more than 5 percentage points to 47.6%, the data showed.

(GRAPHIC - Japan's power generation mix by source:

Japanese utility Hokuriku Electric, which operates in western Japan, said it would not switch from coal to LNG even if prices dropped further.

“We barely have the capacity to switch swiftly from coal to LNG and vice versa,” the company said.

Other operators said a range of factors were considered when deciding on fuel choice, including delivery schedules for fuel under contract, inventory levels and operational readiness of units.

“We do not decide on our power sources only on the basis of a decline in LNG prices,” Kansai Electric said in response to the survey, declining to comment on whether it would use more of the fuel.

Reporting by Aaron Sheldrick and Yuri Harada; editing by Christian Schmollinger