Hunter Lovins argues that investors don’t need to decide whether they believe in climate change: In early 2012 Seeking Alpha, an energy industries financial advisory service with more than three million registered clients cautioned against panicking and selling coal stocks, concluding that even though Peabody Coal’s stock value had fallen 45%, it was nicely undervalued, and after all, such companies had always grown: “Currently, Peabody Energy’s share price is at just over $36 (£25), but I think it has the potential to hit the $45 barrier before the end of 2012 because its Australian interests are likely to be snapped up by China and Indian Steel companies”, the advisors wrote. Seems like a strong argument for staying invested in coal, doesn’t it?
Unfortunately for Peabody’s investors, their trust in China’s insatiable hunger for coal was ill-advised: A 2015 report by the Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, (IEEFA) noted that although “China’s coal demand grew 10% annually over the decade to 2011, the rate of growth halved to 4-6% in 2012 and 2013. In 2014, China’s coal demand has actually declined by 2.1% year-on-year.”
I know these are a lot of numbers for a simple bar talk. And, usually, the China argument doesn’t even come up before the third drink when everyone feels they can win any fight just by quoting a big number. But the changing reality in China might make you want to wait with that second sip.
“While real economic growth exceeded 7%, electricity demand grew by less than 4%”, the IEEFA study said. Rapid supply diversification saw China’s coal consumption decline 2% and coal imports fall by 11% in 2014.
China’s coal demand will permanently peak by 2016 and decline thereafter, the report predicts.
“Coal companies’ underperformance against the global equity market is unprecedented,” said IEEFA’s Tim Buckley. “A more than 50% decline in coal prices has seen most listed coal companies globally lose 80-90% of their equity market value in the last four years. While the sun will undoubtedly rise for renewable energy in 2015, for coal, there remains a lot further to fall.”
Today Peabody Energy, the world’s largest private-sector coal company, is trading below $5 per share. Investors betting that coal will rebound are very likely to find their assets stranded.
Conversely, renewable industries are prospering. A recent study by Agora Energiewende, a German think-tank, found that solar electricity is already a low-cost renewable energy technology. Large-scale photovoltaic installations in Germany fell from over 40 cents per kilowatt-hour (c/kWh) in 2005 to 9 c/kWh in 2014. Even lower prices have been reported in sunnier regions of the world. Most interesting for investors, solar will soon be the cheapest form of electricity in many regions of the world. Even conservative scenarios which assumed no dramatic technological breakthroughs saw no end to cost reduction, with costs of 4-6 c/kWh expected by 2025, and 2-4 c/kWh by 2050.