Analysis: Expensive winter ahead as Europe's power prices surge

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FRANKFURT/LONDON/PARIS Sept 10 (Reuters) - A record run in energy prices that pushed European electricity costs to multi-year highs is unlikely to ease off before year-end, pointing to an expensive winter heating season for consumers.

The key benchmark EU and French power contracts have both doubled so far this year due to a confluence of factors ranging from Asia's economic recovery - which sent related coal and gas prices soaring - to political will to drive up European carbon emission permits, higher oil prices and low local renewable output.

The benchmark EU power contract, German Cal 2022 baseload power , on Friday set a new contract record of 97.25 euros ($115.09) a megawatt hour (MWh), while its French equivalent was just off a record 100.4 euros/MWh.

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German front-year wholesale electricity price

Even though wind supply patterns and Russian gas deliveries are seen as market wild cards, the current backdrop means a significant power supply crunch is likely, traders and analysts say.

Looking to the fourth quarter and the start of winter, both prompt and forward prices are drawing strength from tight supply fundamentals, while predictions for cool and dry weather point to sustained demand and little hydro power supply.

"All our indicators on the weather and the fuel market side are bullish," said Georgi Slavov, head of fundamental research of broker Marex Spectron.

The biggest unknown is the Nord Stream 2 (NS 2) gas link from Russia to Germany, which could be operational in 2021 and boost tight European gas inventories.

At around 70% full, gas stocks are lower than usual after a weak import year in which Asian buyers snapped up liquefied natural gas (LNG) and Europe's industry recovered more quickly than expected from reduced demand due to the COVID-19 crisis.

This time last year, stock levels were at 93%, data from industry group GIE showed.

Construction of the 55 billion cubic metre per year NS 2 pipeline is complete, ready to double Russia's gas exporting capacity via the Baltic Sea, but Germany's regulator has yet to give the green light, which could take months. read more

"As soon as the market realises there is a real flow going through it, the gas market will go down," said Slavov.

Gas demand from power stations has been high due to lower than average wind speeds in Europe, curbing power generation from wind farms.

Analysts ICIS Energy said wind generation in Germany over the next two weeks is expected to average only 5 gigawatts (GW) a day compared to an average of over 10 GW for the three previous Septembers.

That is merely a tenth of the possible total.

"If there are periods again where wind generation drops, which is always the nature of wind, there will be high prices again," ICIS Energy analyst Roy Manuell said.

Other costs impacting power prices, such as carbon permits, are also unlikely to budge.

The European EU carbon benchmark contract , currently at 62.4 euros a tonne, remains not far off an all-time high set this week, buoyed by more ambitious climate targets that raise the cost of pollution, but also because high power generation activity means buyers need more permits.

In complex interactions between fuels and carbon, coal demand has risen as power generators seek to avoid sky-high gas prices.

With coal plants emitting double the amount of carbon dioxide as gas plants, this has in turn led to more demand and higher prices of carbon permits.

European steam coal prices for power generation are at 12-year highs, and at 13-year peaks in Asia.

At least one factor, nuclear availability in major power exporter France, should bring peace of mind as engineers have worked hard to improve the fleet - though Europe-wide, the picture for nuclear is mixed, as power stations in big markets like Britain and Germany close.

Current French daily nuclear availability is seen at between 45 GW and 47 GW for September, which is about 73-75% of the installed total and between 6 and 7 GW above the five-year average, according to ICIS and data from grid company RTE.

November and December availability should be near 90%.

($1 = 0.8450 euros)

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Reporting by Vera Eckert, Susanna Twidale and Forrest Crellin; Editing by Veronica Brown and Jan Harvey

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

Thomson Reuters

Senior power correspondent for Germany with more than 30 years experience and focused on deregulated energy markets for power and gas, companies, networks, exchanges, renewables, policy, storage, future transport and hydrogen. A German native who has studied and worked in the United States and Britain.