Natural gas faces growing competition from coal and renewable energy sources at a time when its potential demand growth is slowing down, an International Energy Agency official said. "The last large contracts for [LNG] were signed in 2014 just before oil prices collapsed. We believe it is still competitive, but there are risks," said Laszlo Varro, who heads IEA's gas, coal and power markets division.
"LNG is the only option besides pipelines to transport large amounts of gas from country to country, but it's very expensive," Varro said during a June 25 presentation at the Center for Strategic and International Studies. "The coal industry in the United States is dreaming of the day when gas prices go $5/MMbtu higher, because it costs more than that to transport US LNG to Europe and Asia."
Varro spoke 3 weeks after IEA said in its 2015 Medium-Term Gas Market Report that global demand would rise 2%/year through 2020, down from the 2.3%/year it projected in its year-earlier forecast. It said weaker gas demand in Asia, where persistently high gas prices caused users to switch to other options until very recently, was behind the downward revision.
Varro noted that based on contracts for actual projects, "the new question is whether LNG is competitive with wind and solar" particularly in countries along the equator. "You do need flexibility in power systems because the wind doesn't always blow and the sun doesn't always shine," he told the CSIS audience. That changes gas's role to a backup, and makes it compete with coal."
Renewable energy technology is improving as new wind turbines are designed to generate less electricity in heavy winds and more in lighter winds, Varro said. Solar photovoltaics face daily and seasonal challenges: In many countries, 85% of SV power is generated between March and October. "In Europe, half of gas-powered generation is cogeneration which runs during the winter," he said.
LNG's transportation entry
Varro forecast that LNG's first transportation uses will be for barges and other maritime vessels, followed by heavy-duty trucks. "Tesla has yet to offer an electric garbage truck," Varro noted. "They're just not as fashionable as cars." Despite growing talk that electric vehicles are catching on in the US, he said the overall impact of natural gas vehicles domestically is four times that of electric cars because of school buses and local delivery fleets.
"LNG is very much emerging as a clean bunker fuel," Varro added. "World shipping is comprised of about a dozen megaports, all of which offer an LNG bunker fuel option."
On the supply side, he said production is following demand down because of depressed prices. "One question is whether lower oil prices will kick US gas prices down," Varro said. "Years of high and stable prices predicted an illusion of stability. That's not true anymore. Several large US projects have started construction, and we believe they will go ahead. But we also believe later ones may not."
He said despite IEA forecasters' pessimism about investment prospects for US LNG projects, "very large volumes will leave the US Gulf Coast by the end of the decade." He said, "We are pessimistic about Canada, but see a wave of new projects first from Australia and then from the US toward the end of the decade."
North America's transition from an LNG importer to exporter will be important to China, Japan, and South Korea, "but a large amount of future growth could take place in southeast Asia," Varro said. "India has an underutilized gas infrastructure, so it is positioned to take advantage of growing LNG availability."
He said IEA expects China to import more LNG, but it will have to compete with other kinds of energy because China has more options. "Additionally, LNG cargoes are looking for places to go, which suggests they will have to go to Europe," Varro said. "That raises the question of what Gazprom will do particularly as more African LNG starts to compete for European customers."
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