Tuesday, March 15, 2011

Energy in the Aftermath of the Sendai Quake

Investors and companies around the world are scrambling to assess the impact of the Sendai earthquake and tsunami on supply chains and markets, both within Japan and globally, between the direct damage from the event and the disruption to critical infrastructure in its aftermath. An item I spotted in this morning's Wall St. Journal provided an early clue concerning the potential ripple effects in global energy markets, as Chevron sold a cargo of Indonesian crude to a power customer south of Tokyo. However, it remains to be seen whether demand destruction or the impairment of supply capabilities will dominate over the short, medium and longer-term recovery periods.

The impact on the Japanese power grid extends beyond the shutdown of 9,702 MW of nuclear power capacity, including 2,812 MW at Fukushima Daiichi that will not resume operations for many years, if ever. Some fossil fuel power plants have also shut down, and more than a fourth of the country's refining capacity is down, cutting off a significant supply of power plant fuel oil, along with a wide range of other petroleum products. That helps explain the interest in light, sweet Indonesian crude that can be burned directly in power plants as a replacement for low-sulfur fuel oil. Significant quantities of Indonesian Minas crude formerly came to the US west coast for a similar purpose, when we still had a lot of oil-fired power generation, although the crude was normally processed to remove the valuable light products from the fuel oil before sale to utilities. (My first job in the industry was at a refinery that did just that as part of a contract Texaco had with a southern California utility.)

Burning crude oil for power is a practical stop-gap, and as long as so many of Japan's refineries remain shut for damage assessment and repair, it shouldn't have much impact on the global crude market, since the crude those refineries would have otherwise run is now surplus. That explains the $5 per barrel drop in crude prices this week. However, if demand recovers faster than Japanese refinery capacity returns to operation, much of that extra crude oil will need to be processed in refineries elsewhere around the Asia-Pacific region, to provide the refined product imports that Japan will need.

It's much harder to assess the medium-term situation, because it will be some time before the full extent of the damage to industry, power generation and transportation is known. If more demand was destroyed than the capacity to supply it, then Japan could actually end up with surplus energy capacity until demand recovers, and that would be a bearish factor in global energy markets. If more energy supply than demand was destroyed, as seems possible given the largely agrarian nature of the part of Japan that suffered the worst consequences of the quake and tsunami, then Japan could be importing additional supplies of energy from regional sources for a long time.

I've had several people ask me about the potential of these events to increase Japan's demand for renewable energy, and I think that's a likely outcome. As of the end of 2009 Japan already had the world's third-largest installed solar power capacity at 2,600 MW, to which another 1,000 MW or so was apparently added last year. For Japanese businesses suffering from rolling brownouts, solar power is one of their few options other than diesel generators for becoming more self-sufficient fairly quickly. However, at the scale of the grid, intermittent solar isn't a great substitute for 24/7 nuclear power. With Japan's average solar insolation, it would take about 5,000 MW of solar panels to replace the annual output of a just one of the Fukushima Daiichi reactors (#2, 3 or 4) at an installed cost in the neighborhood of more than $20 billion. That might give a welcome shot in the arm to photovoltaic manufacturers that are still expanding rapidly but have been overly-dependent on faltering European solar incentives. I don't know enough about the Japanese grid to know how easily they could adjust to such a shift from centralized, baseload power to distributed, cyclical generation.

The long-term outcome seems impossible to gauge at this point, and I hesitate to even speculate while the engineers are still working to cool down the damaged nuclear plants. (The American Nuclear Society has a useful site with updates and background on the Japanese reactors.) Much depends on how well Japan's nuclear industry will be seen to have responded to these incidents. Unless these facilities are either rebuilt or replaced with new, next-generation nuclear plants, then Japan's imports of LNG, coal and other fuels could increase significantly, until and unless renewables ramped up enough to make up the difference. Japan is already the world's largest importer of LNG, and it is perfectly situated to absorb the output of the new LNG plants planned for Australia. That could boost global LNG prices for years to come.

Disclosure: My portfolio includes investment in Chevron, which is mentioned above and owns projects and facilities that could be affected by these events.

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