German chemicals giant stockpiles coal to keep producing


Evonik’s Marl Chemical Park. The web site’s coal-fired energy plant was due to be shut down on the finish of 2022, however will stay working till 2024 to guarantee vitality provide © Wolfram Schroll/Bloomberg

A potent signal of Europe’s vitality disaster could be discovered on the Marl Chemical Park in Germany’s industrial heartland of North Rhine-Westphalia. A coal-fired energy plant that had been due to shut by the top of this 12 months will as a substitute keep operating via the winter, and past, to present vitality for the businesses on the positioning — serving to to preserve greater than 10,000 jobs.

The energy plant is owned by Evonik, certainly one of Germany’s largest speciality chemical firms, which additionally runs the park. And its prolonged lifespan displays the fears of energy shortages within the nation, as fuel imports from Russia have been reduce following its invasion of Ukraine. Governments and producers throughout the continent have been introducing contingency measures to guarantee energy provides proceed through the colder months.

Many firms have turned to coal and different fossil fuels to keep their operations going. In Germany — which goals to part out coal by 2030 as a result of it’s way more carbon-intensive than fuel — the federal government has briefly revived or prolonged the lifetime of a number of coal-fired energy crops. In addition, all three of the nation’s remaining nuclear energy crops, which had been due to shut down by December 31, will proceed working till mid-April 2023.

For energy-intensive industries, this energy disaster is “very acute”, says Harald Schwager, deputy chair of Evonik. He likens the state of affairs to a affected person “at the doctor”, however whereas the “diagnosis is known, so is the therapy”. In this case, the remedy is enhancing provides.

“We have a supply shock,” he says. “One [therefore] needs to find ways and means with investments into energy infrastructure so that the supply can be improved, and prices will then automatically come down.”

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Engineers at Evonik, which makes merchandise utilized in all the things from toothpaste to tyres, began contingency planning in March. The firm screened all of its manufacturing websites to decide the way it may exchange fuel with different vitality sources. Some of its smaller websites have since began utilizing oil as a substitute of fuel however one of many largest modifications has been to keep the coal-fired energy plant in Marl operating till 2024.

One problem, says Schwager, has been to guarantee ample provides of coal to function the plant. Evonik has already stockpiled sufficient coal to keep the plant functioning over the approaching winter months of 2022-23. While the value of coal has “gone up, the important thing is to make sure we can keep producing”, he provides.

The coal plant had been due to get replaced by a brand new gas-fired energy station. Fortuitously, given the present considerations over pure fuel provides, that plant had additionally been geared up to burn different sources of gasoline, together with liquefied petroleum fuel or LPG — a byproduct from refining crude oil. Using a pipeline linked to a close-by refinery owned by BP, Evonik has been in a position to pipe in LPG to assist energy the plant and cut back the quantity of fuel wanted.

The internet results of these measures is that Evonik has been in a position to cut back its pure fuel wants by 40 per cent. Costs, nonetheless, have inevitably risen — the corporate’s vitality invoice has jumped roughly €500mn, says Schwager.

For chemicals teams, vitality is only one of various prices which have risen this 12 months amid wider inflation. However, Schwager is eager to stress that Evonik has maintained its monetary outlook for the rest of the 2022 monetary 12 months. Earlier this month, the corporate reported broadly in-line core revenue for the third quarter as higher selling prices offset increased variable costs.

An Evonik employee looks at a bank of computer monitors
Evonik has maintained its outlook for the rest of the 2022 monetary 12 months regardless of the steep rise in vitality prices © Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg

“Evonik has done a good job of cutting natural gas consumption,” says Sebastian Bray, chemicals analyst at Berenberg in London. “The company’s earnings have generally proven resilient. However, higher working capital requirements resulting from elevated energy and raw materials prices may make cash coverage of dividends in 2022 difficult.”

Evonik’s shares are listed on the Frankfurt Stock Exchange, but it surely additionally has a big cornerstone investor. Germany’s RAG Foundation, which was arrange to assist finance the social prices and long-term liabilities related to the ending of subsidised coal mining in 2018, holds a 56 per cent stake.

Not each massive producer has been in a position to adapt to the vitality crunch in such a means, although. BASF, the world’s largest chemicals group by income and a big consumer of pure fuel for its processes, revealed in October that it had spent €2.2bn extra on fuel at its European websites within the first 9 months of 2022 than it did in the identical interval final 12 months.

Martin Brudermüller, BASF chief government, stated the European fuel disaster, coupled with stricter trade laws within the EU, was forcing the corporate to reduce prices within the area “as quickly as possible and also permanently”. The cuts have been mandatory to “safeguard our medium- and long-term competitiveness in Germany and Europe,” he added.

Brudermüller is just not alone in warning that the vitality disaster can have a doubtlessly devastating financial affect on Europe.

“Soaring energy prices are currently precipitating an alarming decline in the competitiveness of Europe’s industrial energy consumers,” the European Round Table for Industry stated in a letter to the European Commission final month.

Schwager, nonetheless, who was a board member at BASF till 2017, performs down fears of disinvestment, stressing that chemical worth chains are so interwoven that it will be tough to disentangle them. German trade, he provides, has a “task in front of us, we have the toolbox to hike energy efficiency”. 

Nevertheless, he concedes that funding into energy-intensive “upstream areas”, akin to new energy crops, will probably be extra possible occur in different areas the place vitality is cheaper. Europe, he says, will entice funding into innovation for “downstream” merchandise nearer to the shopper.

The chemical trade, he suggests, wants “massive investment” for the long run: “[The idea that] we will all run off and go somewhere else, that just won’t happen — we think in decades, and we want our investments to keep running for decades.”

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