In Australia a study by Fitch, a leading investments-rating agency, found coal would emerge a winner as the price of gas along the east coast rises thanks to demand from soon-to-be completed LNG export projects in Queensland.
In Europe, anger about Russia’s annexation of Crimea is leading to concern about a possible tit-for-tat exchange of damaging reprisals that could lead to reduced gas supplies, forcing a heavier reliance on coal-fired electricity.
In China, the collapse of a company specialising in the production of solar panels has caused everyone in the solar power sector to look more closely at their financial models, which rely heavily on government subsidies that are drying up everywhere.
In the US, the failure of China’s Chaori Solar has triggered a flood of commentary on the parlous state of the solar power sector and its close relationship with banks and governments.
The most troubling observations flowing from Chaori Solar’s downfall, which included the first ever corporate bond default in China, is that it could be the start of an unravelling of the entire house of cards on which the “green” energy sector is built.
That observation, which featured comments under headlines such as “Will the green economy trigger the next global financial crisis” touched on a topic The Hog has explored before, but with added venom.
What has been written here in earlier columns was along the lines of a warning that at some point taxpayers would start to question the wisdom of governments propping over-priced green power schemes that can no longer be afforded, especially when there is cheaper power available from coal-fired power stations.
That is pretty much what is dawning in the global debate but magnified many times because the Chaori Solar crash is seen as the possible start of a more widespread crisis in the Chinese financial sector that could spread to the heavily indebted property sector and then to the banks.
The possible sequence of events, likened to a collapsing line of dominoes, has caused the Chaori Solar bankruptcy to be referred to as China’s Bear Stearns moment, a reference to the failure of the investment bank in the US that preceded the Lehmann Brothers shutdown and the 2008 global financial crisis.
Some observers predict China’s financial system resembles a house of cards with each card connected to another and to remove one, such as wiping out the solar panel makers, will initiate a chain reaction.
Or, as one writer put it: “the green economy has effectively created a greenhouse of cards”
China’s financial troubles are starting to be felt around the world and as businesses struggle to grow they will also struggle to pay high energy prices. Alongside that governments will struggle to provide the subsidies to keep high-cost energy suppliers in production.
The Australian situation, which is similar to that in other countries, was seized on by Fitch in its analysis of the gas v coal debate developing in the major industrial centres around Sydney and Melbourne.
It is major power consumers who are not only starting to fret about the price of power to drive their factories, but whether there will be sufficient power.
The switch by Queensland’s Tarong power station from gas to coal is seen as the start of a trend that is being driven by the high prices on offer for gas to be used in the new export-focused LNG plants leading to more domestic power coming from coal.
“Higher domestic gas prices and lower emissions-related costs expected under the new government policy will enhance the sizeable cost advantages of coal-fired generation over competing gas-fired generation,” Fitch said.
The wild card in this changing scenario or, to be more accurate one of the wild cards, is the Ukraine-Russia situation where it is becoming increasingly likely that some sort of gas embargo will be put in place, either by Russia limiting supplies to hurt Europe, or by Europe buying less gas to hurt Russia.
The Hog has no idea how a game of mutual pain infliction will unfold, or whether the US will start playing by unleashing some of its strategic oil reserves, or actively encourage LNG exports to Europe.
However, there is no doubt that the era of subsidised solar and other forms of high-cost renewable energy is coming to an end, which will clear the way for a worldwide coal revival.