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Iran’s regional electricity hub plan

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Despite its huge oil and gas reserves, Iran has been unable to play an important role in regional and international energy market.

Despite its huge oil and gas reserves, Iran has been unable to play an important role in regional and international energy market, Iranian energy security analyst Omid Shokri Kalehsar has written in an article on ‘Lobe Log’ website.

The limitations placed on its industry, the high growth of annual domestic consumption, and the general disruptions caused to oil exports have all caused consternation among policymakers, especially in the absence of a broad, multi-tiered strategy. Iran needs to promote a smarter energy and foreign diplomacy if it wishes to increase regional cooperation and export electricity to generate the funds necessary to shift toward renewables. Any future sanctions against Iran’s energy sector would have little effect if the country increased the role of renewables in its energy basket. An improved investment climate and improved relations with neighbors would help Iran attract foreign capital and the technological know-how to achieve this goal.

Exporting electricity is better than exporting raw materials such as natural gas. At present, Iran produces a daily amount of 700-800,000 cubic meters. With the completion of five phases of the South Pars Field, the country could increase production by 150,000 cubic meters before March 2019. Its huge natural gas reserves allow Iran to use natural gas to generate electricity to export to neighbors.

According to 2018 statistics released by the Energy Ministry, Iran exported electricity to seven neighbors. In 2017, Iran ranked fourteenth among the world’s largest electricity suppliers, as well as constituting one of the countries with the lowest rates of accidents in the power sector. At present, Iran exports 12 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity, while importing around 4 billion kilowatt-hours of electricity annually. This means earnings of anywhere between $900 million and $1 billion per year. Iran is interested in drawing up long-term contracts to increase elasticity with Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Iraq, as according to Iranian officials, these countries are also interested in boosting electricity imports from Iran. For the first time in Iran’s history, the Iranian government has recently allowed foreign companies to export part of the electricity generated in the country to attract more foreign investments in renewables,

During the period of US and EU sanctions against Iran’s energy sector, Iranian oil and gas production capacity dropped dramatically, causing decision makers to reconsider renewables in the future of the country’s energy basket. Presently, renewable energy represents less than 1 percent of electricity production, along with about 6 percent coming from hydroelectric. The government has insisted, at least on paper, that boosting renewables is a priority.

Hamid Chitchian, Iran’s former energy minister, has also declared that Iran’s energy diplomacy should focus on expanding electrical cooperation with neighbors. Post-sanctions Iran must apply changes to the configuration of its electricity generation, transmission, and distribution. According to the former minister, “Iran’s main priorities for the post-sanction era include use of modern technologies, plant efficiency, smart electrical grids, reopened credit lines, and foreign investment in the power industry.”

Although Iran’s exports of electricity in the region outweigh its imports, the country still hasn’t realized Article 60 of its Sixth Development Plan, which declares the country’s aim to become a regional electricity hub. Article 60 of the Sixth Plan for Economic Development demands steps be taken to establish a regional electricity market from the first year of the program. Iran’s geographical situation and electricity transit systems give it the perfect opportunity to connect to other markets in Russia via Azerbaijan, Europe via Turkey, and the MENA region through Iraq.

However, the active involvement of the private sector and the encouragement of foreign investors will be a pre-requisite for the construction of power plants and the development of electricity transmission networks.

From a political and security perspective, electricity exports, in contrast to conventional gas exports, could promote greater connectedness to the region and neighboring countries.

Currently, Iran has an electrical connection with all neighboring countries (except for Gulf states). In addition, the presence of expert and skilled human resources in Iran and high levels of self-reliance in the power industry and the construction of electrical equipment in the Middle East and Central Asian region are a relative advantage.

As part of the Paris agreement, Iran has voluntarily committed itself to installing the means for generating 7,500 megawatts of renewable energy by 2030. Iran has also passed new laws and regulations aiming to attract more foreign investment and technology in electricity generation.

A look at price changes applied to the country’s gas and electricity exports in recent years shows that the price of gas is more dependent on the price of oil than the price of electricity, and therefore revenues from electricity exports are more stable than gas-export earnings.

Iran can and should aim to become an energy hub for the region, as it is able to receive cheap electricity from Turkmenistan, Tajikistan and other countries to export to more wealthy buyers in Turkey, Iraq, the UAE, and Pakistan, which bid for electricity at a significantly better price. According to Iranian officials, Iran’s growing energy relations with neighbors have helped it to develop the infrastructure needed to expand its electricity export destinations and put it in a position to realize its goals. However, vast improvements are needed to the transport infrastructure and connectivity of countries of the region, as well as the development of maternal industries, such as the electricity industry and energy exports.

Still, after more than a decade, Iran has not put forward any specific operational plans for improving the conditions of the country to become the hub of the region. The failure to develop this infrastructure means that renewed sanctions against Iran’s energy sector will bring major challenges. All the foreign firms once active in Iran’s oil and gas fields, as well as any foreign energy companies that have signed agreement with Iran, left the country after the US withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement. Iran signed an agreement with Turkey’s Unit International to build a number of 5,000 megawatt power plants, but progress has stalled. Iran hopes that foreign capital and technology will produce more natural gas for electricity generation and greater export elasticity with neighbors mean that it may finally get back on its feet in the energy market. Iran must decrease domestic natural gas consumption and try to renew electricity infrastructure if it wishes for any chance of success in the regional electricity market. However, the main obstacle to this will undoubtedly by foreign policy and negotiating solutions with neighbors, not to mention the interlinked issue of attracting foreign investment.

First published in our partner MNA

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Energy

MBS Outmaneuvers Russia’s Oil Politicking

Saad Khoury

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In the wake of the coronavirus outbreak, one of the major economic consequences has been the substantial hit to the energy industry.

Ever since the virus began to spread in January, global markets have been tumbling. This set the price of oil in a downward spiral, reversing many gains  that had accumulated over the last several months. Demand for oil dropped for the first time in over a decade and forecasters at the International Energy Agency assess the decline will continue. While natural gas and coal markets have also been hit, oil demand has dropped more pronouncedly given it supports the freight and logistics sectors that have ground to a halt in recent weeks. The lack of demand for oil in China alone has had a devastating impact – Beijing’s newfound hunger for the commodity was responsible for most of the price increases recently.

However, these unique phenomena have had effects far beyond the purely economic. Politically speaking, the oil market crisis has pitted two global energy giants against each other, producing very intriguing results.

In early March, a meeting took place between the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) and ten other oil-producing countries, known as “OPEC+”. During the conference ending on March 6, Saudi Arabia’s leader, Prince Mohammad Bin Salman Al Saud (MBS) reportedly pushed the idea of coordinating a reduction of output between Saudi Arabia and Russia. MBS planned to reduce output by over 1 million barrels per day, offsetting the major decrease in demand that had been triggered by the corona crisis to stabilize the market. The plan seemed like it was ready to go through until Moscow announced at the last minute that it would refuse. The Kremlin’s about-face came as a shock to OPEC and the international community who saw the move as an attempt to torpedo and politicize the oil sector.

Indeed, oil prices plunged by nearly 10% following the surprise move. It had been widely expected that the Russians would go along with the plan, simply because the alternative, i.e. leaving oil markets in a high-supply-low-demand frenzy, seemed much worse.

So what was at the heart of Russia’s bizarre decision? Revenge.

Washington imposed sanctions on Russia’s oil giant, Rosneft, a month ago over the company’s continued support in selling Venezuela’s oil. In an effort to retaliate, and perhaps prevent future American sanctions, Moscow was hoping to get Riyadh on its side in a plan to inflict economic pain on US shale producers. Moscow has for long felt American shale has been getting a free ride on the back of OPEC+ production cuts. For Moscow’s plan to work, it would still need the support of OPEC+ to ensure that price drops remained temporary and sustainable, since Russia’s oil economy cannot support its country playing oil politics for too long or for too much.

MSB on his part refused to take Russia’s actions lying down.

Almost immediately after Russia’s decision, Riyadh cut its official selling price for April down to $8, from a previous $14, in an effort to pressure Russia back into a deal. Days later, the Saudi government said it would begin increasing oil output to reach a record 13 million barrels per day. The decision came after authorities had already announced they were planning to increase output to 12.3 million. In a statement, Saudi Aramco, the largest energy producer in the world, stated, “it received a directive from the Ministry of Energy to increase its maximum sustainable capacity from 12 million barrels per day to 13 million.”

In essence, MBS has outmaneuvered the Russians in their attempt to hurt the global market and circumvent the effects of sanctions. In other words, MBS called Russia’s bluff by lowering prices even further so that the Kremlin could not dictate terms to OPEC. An impressive example of standing up to Russian manipulation, something that Western powers have been struggling to do for years. 

Russia on its part has been reeling from the effects of the Prince’s decision. 

On March 10, Russian Energy Minister Alexander Novak sought to project confidence, but acknowledged there was a decrease in prices and an increase in volatility. Novak also seemed to have admitted that his government made a mistake and had sought to reach out to the Saudis to “scheduled further meetings to estimate the situation.”

It is important to highlight that Russia was very likely thrown off balance by the Saudi reaction here. Moscow is not used to having its highhanded moves being responded to in kind, and almost certainly did not expect MBS to respond the way he did.  

While the future of this fallout is still unknown, one thing is certain: MBS has demonstrated his country will not be another pushover to Russian aggression.  

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Saudis’ price war or a Russian plot against U.S. shale?

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Since early Monday, the announcement of a “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, two biggest OPEC+ allies, hit the headlines of almost all of the world’s news agencies and outlets and released a wave of panic across the markets all around the world.

Following the two sides’ bitter break up on Friday, oil markets started the week with a free fall; prices plunged nearly 30 percent on Monday to record the sharpest one-day fall in the past 29 years when the first Persian Gulf War was started in 1991.

Brent crude futures fell to nearly $30 on early Monday, the prices, however, bounced back later that day as the impacts of the event faded.

Energy experts and analysts are suggesting two completely different scenarios to explain the series of events that led to the Friday decision.

In one scenario, the one that is broadcasted globally, Saudi Arabia which wanted higher prices or at least wanted to maintain the current price levels asked for more cuts but Russia was OK with the current prices and even was ready for lower ranges so they didn’t agree and the OPEC+ deal ended.

The second scenario, which is more intriguing and more controversial, says that there is no “price war” between Saudi Arabia and Russia, and what we are witnessing is, in fact, Russia declaring war against the U.S.’s “global energy dominance”!

To learn more about the issue, the Tehran Times conducted an interview with Mahmoud Khaqani, an international energy expert. What follows is a summary of the expert’s views on the matter.

Saudis and Russia

Obviously, these days Saudi Arabia is not experiencing its best days. The Kingdom is under pressure both economically and politically.

According to Khaqani, the plunge in oil prices due to the sharp decline in global demand following the spread of coronavirus and its impact on the global economy and transportation has added significantly to the crown prince’s problems causing the young prince to call for deepening of the current 1.8 million cuts.

When faced with disagreement from its biggest non-OPEC allay Russia, the angry Saudi immediately lashed back by offering huge discounts for their oil prices and announcing that they would boost their production to more than 12 million barrels per day (bpd).

Russia, on the other hand, has maintained a calm attitude, saying that its oil industry is resilient enough to keep its market share and withstand even higher price downturns, he said.

Russia and the U.S.

Khaqani believes that the Russians are in fact at war with the U.S. oil industry, and Washington’s use of oil as a strategic asset.

What they call “price war” has already hit the U.S. oil industry hard since Friday and the persistence of the situation could damage the U.S oil industry and dethrone the U.S. from its position as the world’s largest oil producer.

Russia has targeted not only the U.S. oil industry but also the country’s bigger strategic programs for using oil and energy as leverage for applying corrective sanction policies, which Kremlin is already under.

Analysts believe that Russia is trying to thwart the U.S. sanctions that have been intervening with the completion of the country’s Nord Stream 2 pipeline project, which would take natural gas to Europe, making Russia one of the biggest energy players in the world.

The U.S.

In response to the mentioned scenarios, The U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has said that the U.S. will take all necessary measures to maintain its role as the world’s top energy producer and in fact, the country is not going to step back from its “global energy dominance” strategy.

Khaqani believes that the U.S. is seeking to take Saudi Arabia’s role in the oil market becoming the new swing producer capable of regulating production levels to control oil prices.

“These attempts by state actors to manipulate and shock oil markets reinforce the importance of the role of the United States as a reliable energy supplier to partners and allies around the world. The United States, as the world’s largest producer of oil and gas, can and will withstand this volatility,” the DOE said in a statement.

Final thoughts

Whatever the real reason for the rift between Saudi and Russia is, its impacts on the oil market are undeniable.

If the “war” is just between the kingdom and Russia many believe that the impacts will be short-lived and in the near future, we would witness the markets getting back to a more stable status.

The fact is that now after the break-up Saudi Arabia is going to flood the already oversupplied market with oil and eventually Russia which is not able to increase its production as much as the kingdom will have to step back.

If the second scenario is correct, however, we should expect more complications.

From our partner Tehran Times

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Energy

Oil Wars: Russia and Saudi Arabia in the forefront

Sisir Devkota

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Recent developments in Italy and the stock market have things in common. Both came as an alarming surprise; while Italian authorities took stringent measures to lock down the entire nation due to Covid-19 fears, oil prices plunged remarkably in the past week. Rather shamelessly, Russia and Saudi Arabia are exploiting the international epidemic; in order to eclipse a once in a lifetime opportunity. As Saudi Arabia and Russia fought against each other to increase production, oil prices spiraled down in years. The oil giants are looking to consolidate losses from the past. Primarily, both the nations are looking to keep American oil supply arrested, amidst the pandemic uncertainty. As OPEC nations agreed to limit production in order to maintain oil prices, Russia disagreed, prompting the kingdom to counter a bizarre monopoly. The virus has kindled new age energy wars; at the epicenter, are two nations, displaying dreadful nature of international responsibility.

History is key here. Saudi Arabia is sluggishly recovering from an oil field disaster while Russia is eyeing years of forfeited trade advantage caused by western sanctions. International effort is concentrated towards containing the virus, whereas handful of interest agencies along with both nations are seeking an unlikely triumph. A true windfall has caught Russia by surprise, a rare opportunity that will not slip from Putin’s hand. On the other hand, Saudis, rather egoistically are pursuing their godsend place in the international energy market. The scuff is undoubtedly interesting, however; consequentially, it will also determine fortunes for some and famine for others. OPEC’s decision to lower production in order to maintain current oil price is not a samaritan effort; nevertheless, it would have saved capital over-indulgence that could have instead concealed humanitarian efforts to contain the pandemic. For now, management is key and stock market health can prove to be momentous. A lively market is key to ward off unprecedented economic stress.

Russia and Saudi Arabia’s naivety has led to extreme stock market resistance. The world is watching the fight closely, waiting and hoping for the standoff to deflate. It is not the stalemate that is most worrying; unusual market activity is quietly manufacturing an enormous bubble waiting to crack. Market resistance is tipping at a dangerous degree; world markets are sincerely counting on each other for support. For instance, consider how markets would plunge lower than they otherwise would, as oil prices keep decreasing uncommonly. A sinking ship is resisting, waiting for water levels that can only drown by all rationality. Hence, the analogue.It would have taken Russia and Saudi Arabia a great deal of conscience to withdraw national interests for the sake of global welfare. Just in case the virus does not cease to pare, we are in for a truly global disaster. As more nations will testify infected population, the stock market will increasingly face nervous breakdowns. Then after, it will be impossible to guess directions.

Reduced oil prices will complement some and destroy others; the relationship is so disturbing that daily economics might just have to re-invent itself in the face of unpredictability. Imagine the aviation industry exhausting oil demands, in the face of historic low prices. Russia and Saudi Arabia understand the tradeoffs, yet national interests have blindfolded competing energy giants. In the long run, Russia and Saudi Arabia would have stored enough barrels to dictate oligopoly. Alluringly, the case does not rest there. Both the nations will also be hoping for which now looks like a miraculous recovery from the pandemic; future profits will uncharacteristically depend on a healthy market. The risk has been taken despite of all uncertainties. For a change, both Putin and Bin Salman will also be praying, nevertheless.

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