CLP's price scare is just so much gas

PUBLISHED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Thursday, 10 May, 2012, 12:00am

'The era of cheap gas is over, [CLP chief executive Andrew] Brandler said.
SCMP, May 9

I have time for China Light (the old name still rings better than CLP). It runs an excellent power service, it has kept its tariffs well below those of Hongkong Electric and I think its people are genuine in their commitment to the community.

I also think it has unfairly been getting the short end of the stick from the government in the last few years in matters ranging from pollution control to independence of operations and, most significantly, in pressure recently to set tariffs at levels below those earlier agreed with the authorities.

In fact, it seems to me that our government wants a dominant power supplier in Hong Kong more Chinese in origin than China Light with its founding Kadoorie family. Our bureaucrats may tell me I'm wrong about this, but it's my guess that they are waiting for a chance to give the franchise to a mainland power supplier ... and won't negotiate the terms too strenuously.

Thus I can fully understand why the firm should be busy diversifying itself abroad as much as possible, even to the regrettable extent of changing its name.

But at the same time I have to say that the way Andrew Brandler (CLP's CEO) and his colleagues were harrumphing on Tuesday about higher fuel prices driving up power bills amounts to just so much scaremongering, and they ought to know it.

Look at the chart of the difference that has now opened up in the United States between oil and natural gas prices. It is unprecedented. The new technology of fracking - extracting gas under pressure from graphite - is now rapidly changing the dynamics of energy pricing.

And before anyone protests that we are not located in the US, let me point out that only two days ago the Singapore government's investment vehicle, Temasek, took a 19 per cent state in Cheniere Energy, a Texas-based gas distributor. The gas will now flow the other way. It's coming to Asia.

It inevitably would do so anyway. The number of liquefied natural gas terminals built across the world is rising rapidly and traditional producers of gas are already finding themselves under pressure to reduce their prices in line with the revolution in gas extraction.

In fact, Brandler may soon find reason to congratulate himself that China Light's proposal for an LNG receiving terminal on the Soko Islands was rejected a few years ago. The firm did not after all find itself signing a 20-year supply deal with Malaysian producers on terms that would now be very costly to escape.

The spot price for gas increasingly determines contract prices these days. It has become a buyer's market. Those costly long-term supply contracts with China are now unlikely to prove either so costly or so long-term as the firm's scaremongering would lead us to believe.

Bear in mind that gas-powered generation plants are not only much cleaner but much more fuel efficient than coal-burning plants. Instead of grinding the coal to burn the coal dust to make the steam to turn the turbine to crank the generator, you skip the grinder and the furnace and burn the fuel directly in the turbine. This can raise the energy conversion ratio of fuel to electricity to well over 50 per cent, much better than any coal plant can do.

But coal prices now also show signs of crumbling under the assault of the abundance of gas flowing from the new wells. Put it all together and what you have is a suddenly brightened picture for power-generation firms the world over, just when it seemed gloom would prevail because of heightened fears about nuclear power.

There is no way that Brandler could be unaware of these developments and, if he claims so, he should step down as not being up to speed on his job.

I say it again. It's just scaremongering to talk doom talk on gas prices with the fracking revolution under way.