The price of thermal coal used to generate electricity is nearing a record high as surging demand in China and India collides with a reluctance to invest in new capacity in a world heading for decarbonization.
While coal is sometimes called the least-loved commodity because of carbon emissions, Asia’s two largest economies are currently still hooked on the fuel, meaning the rising costs could feed through to higher energy bills and impact economic activity if they persist.
The benchmark coal price was $177.50 per ton on Sept. 10, more than double the level at the beginning of the year and up from about $50 a year ago. The price is the highest in the past 11 years and is nearing the all-time high of the mid-$180s seen in July 2008.
“What we are seeing is a dilemma for investors, financiers as well as companies,” said Shirley Zhang, principal analyst at Wood Mackenzie. “Despite the effort of moving the whole region into a cleaner future, you still need coal for the next 10 years.”
From aluminum to oil to copper, many commodities prices have risen this year as demand rebounded from the early days of the pandemic and speculators piled in. But even in a white-hot market, coal’s 110% jump stands out.
In China and India — which jointly account for 65% of global coal use and are the two biggest importers of the fuel, followed by Japan and South Korea — demand rose as the scorching heat of summer and economic recovery increased the need for electricity.
China’s major power producers generated 13.2% more electricity in the first seven months of this year than in the same period of 2020, according to the country’s National Bureau of Statistics. And they needed more coal to do it because a drought led to lower output from hydroelectric power. The result was that in July China was importing 16% more coal than the same month last year.
In India, after suffering from a severe wave of COVID infections earlier in the year, the economy rebounded to the point that April-June gross domestic product grew at a record pace. Demand for electricity, and therefore coal, is expected to increase further as the pandemic continues to ebb and the country’s rainy season ends.