India’s coal imports improve somewhat, but recovery is uneven
India’s coal imports, depressed by the impact of coronavirus this year, regained ground in September, but in an uneven uptick – shipments rose for higher-grade coking and thermal grades, but slid for lower-rank fuel used mainly in power plants.
India’s total coal imports in September were estimated at 14.62 million tonnes by Refinitiv vessel-tracking and port data, up from 12.97 million in August.
That was the strongest performance by the world’s second-biggest coal importer since April, although imports were still down 6.3% from the 15.61 million tonnes recorded in September 2019.
For the first nine months of the year, imports were estimated at 128.24 million tonnes, a 17% slide from the 154.8 million in the same period last year.
India’s coal sector has been hit hard by the economic lockdown imposed from March onwards as the world’s second-most populous nation battles to contain the ongoing novel coronavirus pandemic.
The economy is forecast to contract by up to 10% in the fiscal year that began in April. That would be India’s weakest performance since 1979, and analysts expect annual power demand to fall for the first time in almost four decades.
However, there are some signs of a tentative recovery. Power generation grew for the first time in seven months in September with activity in factories rising the most in eight years as lockdown restrictions were eased.
Power generation rose 4.9% in September, the first monthly increase since February, according to a Reuters analysis of daily load despatch data from federal grid operator POSOCO.
But the slightly better economic news hasn’t yet translated into an increase in demand for lower-rank thermal coal.
While the Refinitiv shipping data doesn’t give a full breakdown of the grades of coal being imported, certain assumptions can be made.
India’s top supplier is Indonesia, and it buys predominantly lower energy coal from the Southeast Asian nation as it is cost-competitive and generally low in sulphur and ash. India’s domestic coal tends be higher in the polluting impurities.
Imports from Indonesia were 5.38 million tonnes in September, down from 6.07 million the prior month and 7.15 million in September 2019.
The fall in imports certainly isn’t related to prices, with Indonesian coal with an energy value of 4,200 kilocalories per kilogram, as assessed by commodity price reporting agency Argus, dropping to a record low of $22.63 a tonne in the week to Sept. 4.
The price has recovered since then to $26.03 a tonne in the week to Oct. 2, but it is still down 29% from its peak so far in 2020 of $36.67 in mid-February.
More likely is the ongoing struggles of coal-fired power generators in the face of cheaper renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, and also rising production by Coal India , the state-controlled giant.
Coal India, the world’s biggest coal miner, reported output jumping 32% to 40.51 million tonnes in September from the same month last year.
INDUSTRIAL COAL WINS
While it appears low-rank thermal coal is struggling to regain its foothold in India, the same cannot be said for coking coal, used in steel-making, and higher quality thermal coal that is often used in industrial processes like making cement.
India’s imports from Australia, the world’s top exporter of coking coal, rose to 4.05 million tonnes in September, the highest since December 2019 and some 25% higher than the 3.25 million in September last year.
The overwhelming majority of Australia’s coal exports to India are of coking coal, plus the occasional cargo of higher-grade thermal coal, although this is unlikely to be burnt in a power plant.
India’s imports from South Africa are classified as thermal coal, but much of the fuel is used in industrial processes where its higher-energy content compared with Indonesian supplies boosts efficiency.
India imported 3.09 million tonnes from South Africa in September, the most since March and up from 2.38 million in August and 2.37 million in September 2019.
Overall, the coal import data suggest that India’s steel and industrial sectors are recovering faster than the coal-fired power sector.