European energy price surge forcing industrial output cuts

Irene García Pérez, Jack Farchy and Mark Burton 12/22/2021

(Bloomberg) --The relentless surge in European energy prices is exposing the region’s biggest gas and power consumers to heavy losses, forcing industrial giants to cut production and threatening the economic recovery.

With energy costs spiking to fresh records day after day, financial strain is mounting for industries including metals and fertilizers. Aluminium Dunkerque Industries France, Europe’s top smelter of the metal, curbed output in the past two weeks. Trafigura’s Nyrstar will pause zinc production in France in early January and Romanian fertilizer maker Azomures temporarily halted activity.

This year’s energy crunch is so severe that gas prices surged more than 800%, while power costs jumped some 500%. And with the coldest months of the winter still ahead and Russia curbing gas supplies, there’s no relief in sight. All of that is threatening to leave lasting scars on Europe’s industrial economy just as the coronavirus omicron variant spreads across the continent.

“Higher gas prices, both for households and for businesses, are going to be headwinds to activity,” Sarah Hewin, head of Europe and Americas research at Standard Chartered, said in an interview on Bloomberg TV. “This latest surge in gas prices is clearly a negative development for the outlook for all European economies and including the U.K. as well.”

Aluminum is one of the most-energy intensive industrial metals to make and surging power prices forced Aluminium Dunkerque to cut output by about 3%, said union representative Laurent Geeraert. The plant lost about 20 million euros ($22.6 million) since the beginning of November, and further curbs may be necessary if power prices remain at sky-high levels, he said.

Nyrstar will place a zinc smelter in France on care and maintenance in the first week of January, while other plants in Belgium and the Netherlands will continue to operate at reduced capacity. Romanian smelter Alro said current prices are unsustainable, while in Montenegro, the KAP smelter may have its power cut off at year-end unless it agrees to pay its supplier substantially higher prices next year, according to local media.

Food Costs

There’s also a threat to the food-supply chain. Romania’s top fertilizer producer Azomures, a unit of Swiss grain trader Ameropa AG, said on Friday that facilities had started to be shut down and that farmers would not be able to afford such high prices. Norway’s Yara International, which curbed output earlier this year, said it would continue to monitor the situation closely and curtail production where necessary.

“This is going to bite us eventually in terms of the cost of food and this isn’t going to have an impact on Europe, this is going to have an impact in a lot of countries,” said Anne-Sophie Corbeau, a research scholar at the Center on Global Energy Policy at Columbia University.

Italian Premier Mario Draghi said the increase in energy prices “requires urgent action.” Of the European Union’s 27 members, 20 have acted to soften the blow for the most vulnerable consumers and households.

“The EU Commission is working but we need to work at national level as well and support for families and businesses,” he told reporters on Wednesday.

Aluminum smelters are typically slow to curb production as the costs of shutting down and restarting capacity are high. While major power buyers typically have long-term power hedges in place, it’s only a matter of time before the surge feeds through.

Existential Crisis

“We’re seeing an existential crisis of the European aluminum industry and other metals-smelting industries that are power intensive,” said Mark Hansen, chief executive officer at metals trader Concord Resources Ltd. “It’s not always so easy to get these businesses back in operation. These are not just on-off switches.”

Aluminum prices rallied more than 40% this year and demand in the region is booming, but profitability is being eroded by energy prices. At one-month baseload prices in France, it would cost about $11,000 for the power typically needed to make one ton of aluminum, which sells for about $2,800 a ton.

Europe’s aluminum smelters account for a small share of global production, but they employ thousands of workers and are a valuable source of tax revenue. Cuts to output could force the region to rely on imports from countries that are often use fossil fuels to generate power, Hansen said. That could create further headwinds for consumers such as car markers and airlines should the EU impose a levy on carbon-intensive products.

Europe’s energy crunch is set to deepen next year as the weather gets colder and Electricite de France SA grapples with several reactor outages. At the beginning of January, 30% of the nation’s nuclear capacity will be offline, increasing the reliance on gas, coal and even oil to keep the lights on.

“If there are further supply disruptions or extreme cold weather in the first quarter, we are basically down to shutting down factories,’ Corbeau said. “That’s the only we thing we can do, because governments cannot have people freezing in the dark”.

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