What has caused September price swings?
Prices across the energy mix have seen significant price swings over the last two weeks as the market responded to external developments which had greatly increased supply risks ahead of the upcoming winter season.
Concerns over supply, demand and flexibility within energy markets ahead of the highest demand period of the year were highly price supportive.
In less than a week of trading, front-month gas prices climbed 25%, and the corresponding power contract rose 15%.
The Winter 19 power contract spiked £4.55 in just one day, while Winter 19 gas jumped over 6p/th, the largest daily move on a seasonal contract since at least 2008.
The initial price spikes were triggered by the simultaneous discovery of three ‘black swans’, an industry term describing unpredictable events that go beyond normal expectations of the situation.
A fourth such event occurred a few days later when rebels attacked Saudi Arabian oil facilities. Brent and WTI crude oil prices saw the highest within-day spikes in 30 years, with both markets gaining more than $8/bbl in one day. The jump in the oil market provided more bullish support to the wider energy mix, with longer-dated gas and power contracts moving to new highs on the back of the increased oil costs.
As these unpredictable events have developed, energy prices have given back some of the exceptional gains. However, prices remain elevated across the month, above the lows seen in early September. Here we explain what these issues were and how they are impacting on the energy market.
The Dutch Government reported that the production cap at its Groningen gas field will be lowered to 11.8bcm for the upcoming gas year from 1 October 2019. The state also confirmed that the site – previously Europe’s largest – would close entirely by 2022, eight years earlier than expected.
Production at the field has been gradually slowing for seven years after drilling led to a series of earthquakes, forcing legislation to limit output. In 2013 the field was producing 54BCM/y, declining to 11.8BCM for 2019/20. While the reduced supply from Groningen was somewhat expected within the market, supply was expected to be available for another eight years. This curtailment helped to support a sudden price rise across the curve.
The loss of production has been reflected in the loss of flexibility within Dutch gas supply, and therefore reducing the ability to respond to spikes in demand or other supply issues. Five years ago Dutch gas production was able to ramp up to 277MCM/d in response to high demand on a cold day. However, production last winter peaked at just 164mcm, while output so far in September 2019 has averaged under 50mcm/d.
The OPAL pipeline in Germany connects the Nord Stream pipeline with connections in central and western Europe. This month the European Commission overturned a ruling in 2016 which had effectively allowed Russian giant Gazprom a near monopoly of the volume of the pipeline, with 90% access. A complaint from neighbouring countries, led by Poland, saw this ruling challenged and the Russian transit through the link must now be cut to 40%.
The OPAL pipeline had allowed Russian gas to reach central Europe via Nord Stream and onwards, without transiting war-torn Ukraine. The EU decision will see Gazprom’s access cut by half, potentially reducing the availability of Russian gas to enter Europe, unless other transit routes are made available.
French nuclear power plants
EDF reported welding issues with at least five of its nuclear reactors, which could force shutdowns of the power stations. This would greatly reduce available power supplies for France, where 80% of its generation is supplied by nuclear and the majority of domestic heating is electric. Demand for imports will increase as will demand for more expensive and less efficient gas and coal plant, which also increases the consumption of carbon.
The UK’s interconnection with France sees imports from France provide the marginal supply to Britain, ensuring the countries’ pricing is closely aligned. Issues with French nuclear manufacturing had previously occurred in autumn 2016 when over 40% of France’s nuclear fleet closed down. This caused record spikes in UK power prices, with the Day-ahead market at over £150/MWh, and the front-month contract doubling from £40/MWh to over £80/MWh.
The potential loss of nuclear generation adds significant risk to the coming winter, particularly if tighter power supplies coincide with cold, windless weather conditions when gas demand is already at its highest levels for the year.
Since the initial announcement, EDF Energy has confirmed just six nuclear reactors are affected by the welding issues identified. The company believes no immediate action is required, an announcement which triggered a pull back in prices. However, the ultimate decision on whether to close nuclear plants for repairs lies with the French nuclear regulator ASN.
Saudi Arabia oil attack
The last piece of news impacting energy markets in September was a series of rebel drone attacks on major Saudi Arabian oil processing facilities at Abqaiq and oil fields at Khurais. The United States has blamed the attack on Iran, but Tehran claim no involvement. US-Iranian tensions were already heightened after a failed nuclear power agreement last year and attacks on oil tankers in the Middle East.
The rebel attack in Saudi Arabia forced around 7 million barrels per day of production offline, halving the country’s output and impacting on more than 5% of global oil supply.
However, Saudi Arabia confirmed it met customer orders by tapping into substantial storage reserves. Furthermore, the affected facilities would be back to pre-attack volumes by the end of September. Tensions remain heightened in the region but the swift return to operation of the affect facilities prompted oil prices to drop back from the earlier peaks.
Uncertainty lingers over these issues, despite fresh developments so the potential for further price spikes remains in play. However, within the recent volatility on energy contracts, prices across gas, power, oil, coal and carbon remain within a sideways range. In fact, the majority of contracts range-bound since the start of the summer season.
The threat of a break below this range has been mitigated by the recent price spikes. However, the highs reached in July have yet to be tested. How the energy market breaks out of this range will determine future price action.
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