Building back blacker: Europe returns to burning coal because of a shortage of natural gas

  • Date: 15/06/21
  • Bloomberg

Europe is so short of natural gas that the continent — usually seen as the poster child for the global fight against emissions — is turning to coal to meet electricity demand that is now back to pre-pandemic levels.

Coal usage in the continent jumped 10% to 15% this year after a colder- and longer-than-usual winter left gas storage sites depleted, said Andy Sommer, team leader of fundamental analysis and modeling at Swiss trader Axpo Solutions AG. As economies reopen and people go back to the office, countries like Germany, the Netherlands and Poland turned to coal to keep the lights on.

Europe has long been at the forefront of the battle to reduce global warming. The continent has the world’s largest carbon market, charging the likes of utilities, steel producers and cement makers for polluting the environment. But even with record carbon prices this year, low gas reserves mean burning coal — the dirties of fossil fuels — has become more widespread again.

German daily power generation

“Energy demand has been pretty strong in Europe and we have seen a recovery from the pandemic,” Sommer said in an interview. “Gas storage is so low now that Europe cannot afford to run extra power generation with the fuel.”

The return of coal is a setback for Europe ahead of the climate talks in Glasgow later this year. Leaders of the world’s biggest economies failed to set a firm date to end coal burning at the meeting of the Group of Seven at the weekend in Cornwall, U.K.

Europe faced freezing temperatures earlier this year, boosting demand for heating at a time liquefied natural gas cargoes were being sent to Asia instead. Russia sent less gas to the continent via Ukraine ahead of the start of the Nord Stream 2 link to Germany, expected later this year.

All of that mean that European storage is currently 25% below the five-year average and benchmark Dutch gas surged more than 50% this year. Futures are currently trading near their highest level for this time of the year since 2008.

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