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Impact of COVID-19 on Commodity Markets Heaviest on Energy Prices

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While metal and agricultural commodities have recouped their losses from the COVID-19 pandemic and are expected to make modest gains in 2021, energy prices, despite some recovery, are expected to stabilize below pre-pandemic levels next year, the World Bank said.

Oil prices fell dramatically in the early stages of COVID-19 and have only partially regained pre-pandemic price levels, while metal prices declined relatively modestly and have returned to levels that preceded the shock, according to the semi-annual Commodity Markets Outlook report. Agriculture prices were relatively unaffected by the pandemic, but the number of people at risk of food insecurity has risen as a result of the broader effects of the global recession.

“The impact of COVID-19 on commodities has been uneven, and could have lasting effects for energy markets,” said Ayhan Kose, World Bank Group Acting Vice President for Equitable Growth, Finance & Institutions and Director for the Prospects Group. “When declines in commodity prices are short-lived, policy stimulus can buffer their impact. However, when prices remain depressed for an extended period, policy makers need to find solutions so their economies can adjust smoothly to a new normal. Because of COVID-19, the new normal for oil-exporting emerging and developing economies arrived earlier. In the post-COVID world, these countries need to be more aggressive in implementing policies to reduce their reliance on oil revenues.”

Oil prices are expected to average $44 per barrel in 2021, up from an estimated $41 per barrel in 2020. Demand is expected to rise only slowly as tourism and travel continue to be held back by health concerns and as global economic activity is anticipated to return to pre-pandemic levels only in the year after next. Supply restraint is expected to be eased steadily.  Energy prices overall —which also include natural gas and coal—are expected to rebound sizably in 2021, following large declines in 2020, an upward revision from April’s forecast. A resurgence of a second wave of the pandemic that results in more lockdowns and less consumption, and delays in vaccine development and distribution, could lead to lower energy prices than forecast.

Metal prices are expected to post modest increases in 2021 after falling in 2020, supported by the ongoing recovery in the global economy and continued stimulus from China. A prolonged period of weak global growth would lead to lower prices than forecast.

Agriculture prices are expected to rise slightly in 2021, following an estimated 3% increase in 2020 following some shortfall in edible oil production. Concerns about food insecurity remain relevant in several emerging market and developing economies. These concerns are prompted by hits to incomes from the global recession, bottlenecks in food availability at the local level, and border restrictions that have constrained labor supply. Food price inflation has spiked in several countries.

The pandemic is only the latest in a long history of shocks to commodity markets. A Special Focus looks at the nature of commodity price shocks on 27 commodities during 1970-2019. It finds that highly persistent (“permanent”) and short-lived (“transitory”) shocks have contributed almost equally to commodity price variation, although with wide variety across commodities. Permanent shocks account for most of agricultural commodity price variability while transitory shocks are more relevant in industrial commodity prices. The varied duration of such shocks points to a need for policy flexibility.

 A transitory commodity price shock may call for stimulative fiscal policy to smooth consumption; countries that depend on exports of commodities subject to cyclical price swings may want to build fiscal buffers during the boom phase and use them in the bust period to support economic activity. In countries that rely heavily on commodities that are subject to permanent shocks, structural policies such as economic diversification and broadening the tax base may be needed to facilitate adjustments to new economic environments.

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Korea is putting innovation and technology at the centre of its clean energy transition

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The successful implementation of the Korean government’s Green New Deal will provide an opportunity to accelerate Korea’s clean energy transition and place the country at the forefront of some of the energy industries of the future, according to a new policy review by the International Energy Agency.

Korea recently set a target of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050 to steer its energy sector away from today’s dominance of fossil fuels and strong dependence on energy imports. To accelerate the transition to low-carbon energy, the government is committed to substantially increasing the share of renewable energy sources in the electricity supply, gradually phasing out coal, significantly improving energy efficiency and fostering the country’s nascent hydrogen industry.

“Many of these measures will help Korea not only to advance its energy transition but also to improve its energy security – a high priority given the country’s limited domestic energy production,” said Dr Fatih Birol, the IEA Executive Director, who is launching the report today at an online event with Joo Young-joon, Deputy Minister at the Korean Ministry of Trade, Industry and Energy. “I welcome Korea’s ambitious carbon-neutrality goal and the initial steps set out in its Green New Deal. The IEA is committed to supporting the government in these vital efforts.”

In 2015, Korea became the first country in Northeast Asia to introduce a nationwide emissions trading system that sets a best practice example for other countries to follow. But more needs to be done to reduce the carbon intensity of Korea’s energy supply, which is above the IEA average because of the high share of coal-fired power generation.

Plans by the government to close aging coal-fired plants reflect growing concerns among the population over climate change and local air pollution. The government can draw on this public support to swiftly introduce its planned environmentally friendly energy tax programme that will complement other policy measures, according to the IEA report.

Korea’s private sector has a high capacity for technology innovation and its population has shown an almost unparalleled openness toward digitalisation. This closely links Korea’s energy transition to efforts to spur investments in energy storage systems, smart grids and intelligent transport systems.

“Korea can draw on its technological expertise by addressing regulatory and institutional barriers in its energy markets and by fostering more active consumer engagement,” Dr Birol said. “This can improve the way the energy markets operate, enhance competition and encourage the emergence of new business models.”

The focus of Korea’s energy transition must go beyond the power sector to target emissions from industry and transport, the IEA policy review says. The industrial sector is emissions-intensive and accounts for over half of Korea’s final energy consumption despite the notable improvement in energy efficiency over the last decade. The IEA review welcomes the new policy emphasis on integrating individual energy efficiency measures as building blocks for smart energy industrial complexes. It will also be important to find a good balance between mandatory and voluntary measures to encourage further energy efficiency improvements in industry.

In the transport sector, Korea has well-established fuel economy standards for passenger vehicles, but progress is currently lagging behind government targets. The IEA applauds the government’s plans to introduce fuel economy standards for heavy goods vehicles, which would put Korea at the forefront of global efforts.

Korea has set ambitious goals for the roll-out of electric mobility and also to establish itself as a leading exporter of hydrogen and fuel cell vehicles by 2040. Those targets and the commitment to research and innovation more broadly are commendable, but Korea also needs to reappraise the role public transport could play in the future, according to the report.

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$600 Million ADB Loan to Expand Energy Access in Eastern Indonesia

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The Asian Development Bank (ADB) has approved a $600 million loan to help the State Electricity Corporation (PLN), Indonesia’s state-owned power company, expand electricity access and promote renewable energy in eastern Indonesia. The program also includes two grants, at $3 million each, from the Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction and the Asia Clean Energy Fund.

The second phase of the Sustainable Energy Access in Eastern Indonesia–Electricity Grid Development Program supports efforts by PLN  to expand electricity access and improve service reliability in nine provinces in the outer regions of Kalimantan, Maluku, and Papua. The first phase of the program began in 2017 and covered eight provinces in Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara.

“The program will boost sustainable, equitable, and reliable access to electricity among the communities in remote eastern Indonesia, including through the use of solar and other renewable sources,” said ADB Southeast Asia Energy Director Toru Kubo. “Reliable electricity is essential for people to access job opportunities, education, and health services, especially during the coronavirus disease (COVID-19) pandemic. The program will also support eastern Indonesia’s economic recovery from the pandemic and contribute to equitable and resilient growth.”

Indonesia’s economy has doubled in size since 2000 and the national poverty rate declined to 9.7% in 2018 from 19.1% in 2000. Such gains are now threatened by the COVID-19 pandemic. ADB expects Indonesia’s economy to contract by 1.0% in 2020, compared with a 5.0% expansion in 2019. To cushion the economic shock, the government has announced free electricity for 24 million poor households and a 50% discount for 7 million more households, which could reduce PLN’s revenue and financing capacity.

The government has been pushing to develop the country’s economic growth centers beyond Java, where more than half of the population live. Residents in eastern Indonesia currently have limited access to electricity, with up to 56% of households having inadequate or no electricity access in Papua and 28% in Maluku—much higher than the national average of 4%. The government has prioritized 433 villages currently without access to electricity, all of them located in the eastern provinces of Papua, West Papua, East Nusa Tenggara, and Maluku.

Expanded electrification in eastern Indonesia is a key part of the government’s infrastructure investment plan, with the goal of electricity for all by 2024. The government plans to increase the share of renewable energy in the total energy mix to 23% by 2025, up from 13% in 2016. It also hopes to eliminate diesel use to the extent possible, a task most challenging in the remote eastern regions.

“The program will increase PLN’s delivery of electricity powered by renewable energy to remote communities by six-fold and reduce indoor kerosene and wood consumption, which is expected to generate significant environmental and social benefits,” said ADB Energy Specialist Diana Connett.

The first phase of the program in Sulawesi and Nusa Tenggara has proved successful. By the end of 2019, the number of new customers increased by 1.53 million, exceeding the program’s target of 1.37 million. The second phase of the program aims to provide electricity to 1.55 million new customers by 2024 across the nine provinces.

The results-based loan to PLN, with a sovereign guarantee from the Government of Indonesia, will support the utility’s efforts to install medium- and low-voltage power distribution infrastructure. It will also help PLN staff better manage assets and safely dispose of waste equipment, as well as improving procurement and payment systems.

The grant from the Asia Clean Energy Fund will help renewable energy plants apply advanced technologies to improve system design and maintenance. The Japan Fund for Poverty Reduction grant will support measures to install power connections for poor households and help PLN conduct a longitudinal social and gender impact assessment.

Other ADB energy initiatives include two ongoing private sector loans supporting wind and solar power generation in eastern Indonesia. They also include policy-based loans that, along with technical assistance, help strengthen sector governance and fiscal sustainability, boost private sector investment, and promote clean and efficient energy options.

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IEA holds talks with China on a roadmap for reaching its 2060 carbon-neutrality goal

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IEA Executive Director Dr Fatih Birol held a productive meeting on 19 November with Mr Huang Runqiu, Minister of Ecology and Environment of China to discuss how the IEA can support China achieve its energy and climate ambitions, including the goal of reaching carbon neutrality before 2060.

The IEA welcomes the opportunity to support China in its development of an ambitious and realistic roadmap and policies for achieving a peak in emissions before 2030 and carbon neutrality before 2060. The IEA input is expected to draw on its policy expertise on emissions trading system implementation and critical technologies such as renewables and carbon capture, utilisation and storage.

The Chinese government is currently developing its 14th Five Year Plan, which will shape its economic policies over the first half of the coming decade, which will be a critical period for global efforts to tackle climate change. The new Five Year Plan is set to strengthen previous policies to further reduce CO2 emissions in line with China’s aim of achieving a peak in emissions before 2030. Measures are expected to include accelerating the implementation of a national emissions trading system, ramping up innovation in low-carbon technologies and increasing climate change capacity building.

At the bilateral meeting, Dr Birol underscored that a key challenge for China is to design a roadmap and energy policies that simultaneously put it on a path towards its carbon neutrality goal while also supporting the country’s continued economic development. He noted that the 14th Five Year Plan will be very important not just for China, but also for the world.

Minister Huang highlighted President Xi Jinping of China’s emphasis on the need for green, low-carbon industries, which he views as a necessary component of the high quality economic development that China is pursuing.

The IEA and the Chinese Ministry of Ecology and Environment signed their first Memorandum of Understing on Climate Change Cooperation on July 2018, laying solid foundations for future colloboration. Both organisations have agreed to continue under this framework and work on a wide-range of areas spanning energy development, clean energy transitions and climate change. 

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