[Ferro-Alloys.com] European coal imports inched up from April's three-decade low, but were still sharply down on the year in May.
Net imports by EU 27 members fell by 3mn t on the year to 3.3mn t in May according to Eurostat data. This was up from net imports of 2.6mn t in April.
Net imports into the bloc, excluding the UK, were 20.9mn t lower on the year in January-May, at 18.6mn t. The UK imported around 1.2mn t, down from 2.6mn t.
Receipts in May were down on the year for the 15th consecutive month and the trend is likely to persist in the second half of the year. Net imports into the bloc averaged 5.8mn t/month in June-December 2019, but recent low prices and a soft demand outlook driven by weak power consumption and fierce competition from gas will probably keep imports below that level in 2020.
The annual decline in supply may slow compared with the start of 2020, however, as a steep contango in German power prices means generation margins for coal-fired plants are increasingly profitable on the curve out to March 2021.
Month-ahead average clean dark spreads for 46pc-efficient plants dropped to as low as minus €6.47/MWh in April and have remained negative since then, despite a gradual recovery. Base-load margins are positive for September onwards and the first-quarter 2021 clean dark spread was €6.36/MWh, which may drive a modest increase in coal burn in the third quarter and see some utilities' having to step up restocking for the peak winter months.
Coal consumption is still likely to be unseasonably low for the rest of the year, barring a significant recovery in power demand or gas prices. High-efficiency German coal-fired plants are uncompetitive with 55pc to 59pc-efficient gas-fired plants out to late 2022, based on recent forward gas, coal and EU carbon prices, which suggests that coal-to-gas fuel switching will be a limiting factor for coal demand in the medium term.
But supply-side fundamentals have also shifted in 2020, which could make short-term spikes in coal demand particularly volatile for spot prices. Weaker imports in 2020 have drawn stocks in the ARA region down by around 1mn t from a high of more than 7mn t in July 2019, while low prices are deterring Russian, Colombian and US suppliers from exporting to the region.
EU imports from Russia fell by 9.3mn t on the year in January-May to 13.1mn t, with US, Colombian and Indonesian supply down by 1.5mn t, 2.2mn t and 2.4mn t, respectively.
Imports into the Netherlands accounted for 7.3mn t, or 35pc, of the decline, with Spain accounting for 3.9mn t and Germany 2.8mn t.
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