South Africa’s coal exports face terminal decline

South Africa’s thermal coal export industry is facing long-term, permanent decline. Aside from the domestic issues that the South African coal industry faces, the sector will also need to come to terms with the prospect of fading demand from its major export destinations.

The Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis (IEEFA), a respected international energy think-tank, published an important new report on 16 September 2019 on the future outlook for South African coal exports, which points to an industry in long-term decline with significant risks ahead.

South Africa is more heavily dependent on one nation for its export volumes than other major thermal coal exporters like Indonesia and Australia.

In 2018, 48% of all South African exports out of Richards Bay Coal Terminal (RBCT) went to India, a nation with a clearly stated policy of reducing reliance on coal imports. In the first half of 2019, that rose to 60%.

This export industry decline will not happen overnight or even in the next few years – there is time for policy makers to prepare for the coming transition in order to plan for the inevitable social and economic consequences.

An unavoidable technology transition

At its heart, this is a technology transition and is hence unavoidable – it will happen whether policy makers want it or not. A lack of planning will result in a chaotic transition with negative social and economic impacts of the type South Africa can ill-afford.

As tends to happen in technological transitions, new energy technology will replace coal-fired power faster than most predict.

According to Bloomberg New Energy Finance (BNEF), two-thirds of the world’s population already live in countries where wind or solar (or both) are the cheapest source of new power generation. By 2030, new wind and solar will be cheaper than running existing coal- or gas-fired plants virtually everywhere. This is already the case in India.

By 2032, BNEF foresees there will be more solar and wind power capacity installed globally than coal-fired power. Coal-fired power generation will decline 51% by 2050 by which time it will supply just 12% of the world’s electricity.

Global mining giants such as Rio Tinto, BHP, Anglo American and South32 have either withdrawn from the seaborne thermal coal market already or are now considering it.

Financial institutions abandoning the thermal coal industry

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Financial institutions are now abandoning the thermal coal industry at a significant and increasing rate. Since 2018, a financial institution has announced a restriction on coal financing every two weeks on average.

In the first half of 2019, that rate increased to one per week and well over 100 financial institutions around the world, including South African banks, have formal coal exclusion policies now in place. Access to coal debt and equity financing is becoming increasingly problematic.

South Africa’s major export markets are already showing signs of transition away from coal or limited growth potential which will disappoint the industry:

  • The last fiscal year saw the expansion of thermal power capacity in India slow to the lowest level in a decade as a major renewable energy expansion continued. India’s coal ministry is now preparing a new plan to cut coal imports by one-third, or around 85 Mt, by 2024.
  • In January 2019, an imported coal-fired power project in Pakistan was cancelled over fears of over-capacity and the economic burden of coal imports. Newly built imported coal-fired plants in Pakistan are already reportedly under severe financial stress, in part due to the high cost of importing coal.
  • The Pakistan government has drafted a new renewable energy policy which will set national targets for renewables (excluding hydro) to reach 30% of installed capacity by 2030, up from the current level of 4%.
  • In South Korea, driven by air pollution as well as carbon emissions concerns, the government has stated it will “drastically” cut power generation from coal by banning new coal-fired power plants and closing old ones. South Korea is now considering the progressive retirement of up to 20 coal-fired power plants and placing output caps on a number of others.
  • The outlook for thermal coal demand in Europe is dire for exporters. The CEO of Cerrejón Coal projects that thermal coal demand from some nations within the Atlantic market may fall another 50% to 60% over the next five to seven years.
  • Delays to coal power projects in the rest of Africa are allowing renewables to make substantial progress. Kenya’s Lake Turkana wind farm, the largest in Africa, is already replacing diesel in the generation mix – beating the now delayed Lamu coal power project to it.

South African coal exporters are likely to seek alternative markets going forward as opportunities for growth in the main export destinations dry up. However, the long-term outlook for coal exports to other destinations is also likely to disappoint.

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Global seaborne coal trade set to decline

Furthermore, with the global seaborne coal trade set to go into permanent decline, South Africa will see increased competition in these markets from other major thermal coal exporters such as Indonesia, Australia and Russia.

Richards Bay Coal Terminal may have to get used to the idea that an increasing proportion of its annual capacity will become stranded. With a capacity of 91 Mtpa, Richards Bay operated with almost 20% spare capacity in 2018.

Richards Bay is not alone in this. The coal terminals at the Port of Newcastle in Australia – the world’s largest coal export port – operated with 25% surplus capacity in 2018 and its proposed T4 expansion project has been cancelled.

Concern over thermal coal’s long-term sustainability has led the chairman of the Port of Newcastle to recognise an “urgent need” for the port to diversify away from a reliance on coal, further stating, “While the world’s demand for our coal is beyond our control, our ability to invest in new sources of growth and innovation is not.”