PRESSURE is mounting in the Singapore power generation sector. Mired in massive overcapacity for the past few years, all generation companies (gencos) but one have slipped into the red.
And if the situation persists, there is a possibility a genco could go bust, some warn.
“Overcapacity and non-performing asset operations normally lead to under-investments in the sector, particular in peak supply capacity. Long term loss-making operations result normally in bankruptcies of gencos,” said independent consultant Martin van der Lugt.
Singapore’s power generation sector has a total capacity of 13,350 megawatts (MW). Peak demand, however, averaged only 7,000 MW in the year to March 2017, leaving a spare capacity of 48 per cent in the system.
The vast overcapacity in the past few years has pushed wholesale electricity prices, known as the Uniform Singapore Energy Price (USEP), to a historical low of S$63 per megawatt hour (MWh) in 2016, compared to a peak of S$215 in 2011.
While it has recovered to average S$81 per MWh last year, thanks to higher fuel oil prices and growth in consumption, this remains the second-lowest since the electricity market started in 2003.
Besides, the rise in wholesale electricity prices reflects the increase in short term marginal costs (such as higher feedstock gas prices) and does not help gencos to cover their fixed costs, said Mr van der Lugt.
Today’s overcapacity can be traced back to the high prices in 2012 which led gencos to add new capacity, said Chong Zhi Xin, associate director at IHS Markit’s power, gas, renewables and coal practice.
At around the same time, the Singapore government was handing out liquefied natural gas (LNG) vesting contracts to encourage LNG demand prior to the start-up of the LNG terminal.
These vesting contracts assured the gencos of a certain stream of income (by providing a specified price for a specified amount of electricity), in return for building new capacity that would use LNG as a fuel. However, the introduction of these LNG vesting contracts caused the gencos to add nearly 3,000 MW in capacity between 2012 and 2014, said Mr van der Lugt. “These 3,000 MW were not necessary,” he said. “That created the overcapacity.”
That the additional capacity all came on at the same time – and at a period when power demand had not been growing as robustly as expected – made matters worse, added Mr Chong.
Power demand growth has been weaker than expected as Singapore’s growth slowed. In addition, the correlation between power demand and economic growth has also weakened as more industrial users pursue energy efficiency. Whatever new demand is also being met by new solar generation, said industry players.
Last year, for instance, Singapore’s electricity consumption grew only 1.4 per cent over 2016 – the slowest growth rate in six years – despite the country’s GDP growth of 3.6 per cent.
The confluence of these factors resulted in almost all the gencos slipping into the red.
The industry recorded losses of S$357.1 million after tax in 2016 compared to a profit after tax of S$558.3 million in 2013, latest available figures from the Accounting and Corporate Regulatory Authority (Acra) show.
Even the lone profitable generation company, YTL PowerSeraya which is owned by Malaysian YTL Group, has seen profit after tax plunge 89 per cent since 2013 to a low of S$25.3 million in 2016, though this has recovered to S$41 million in 2017.
To be sure, profitability is only one metric to determine the financial health of the industry. Cashflow numbers, another important metric, were not available from Acra.
Nevertheless, the dire state of the industry has compelled some gencos to put up an industry representation letter to the Energy Market Authority (EMA) stating its concerns.
Olivia Lum, chief executive of Hyflux, which owns Tuaspring power plant, said at the firm’s results briefing in late February: “If the whole industry is losing more than a billion dollars every year, it makes the whole industry very vulnerable. I feel that it’s just not sustainable.”
The seven gencos (in order of generation market share: Tuas Power, Senoko Energy, YTL PowerSeraya, Keppel Merlimau Cogen, Sembcorp Cogen, PacificLight Power and Tuaspring) declined to comment when approached.
The liberalisation of the electricity retail market brings both promise and peril for the gencos.
Some 28 per cent of the retail market remains with SP Services, representing a substantial market for electricity retailers to chisel away. The retail electricity price is also higher than the wholesale one.
Winning retail market share, however, will not be easy with the large number of retailers in the market, noted Mr Chong. Some 31 companies have been approved to retail electricity in Singapore, but currently only 19 are active.
Said Mr Chong: “You need to do more marketing. You need to be innovative and try to out-compete the others and put together flexible and competitive pricing packages. And that’s going to be challenging.
“Especially for these companies that are always used to doing B2B business, a B2C business is going to be tough,” he added. “Some will be more successful than others depending on who’s more savvy.”
For the gencos, the situation is exacerbated by the current phasing out of vesting contracts. These were put in place since 2004 to remove the incentive for the firms to push up spot prices by withholding their generating capacity. With the threat of power market manipulation by big players having receded, EMA has been progressively reducing vesting contracts, which will be fully removed from July 2023.
At the same time, demand growth is expected to be slow in the years ahead. Any growth in demand will also almost be covered by additional solar power, said Mr van der Lugt. “Growth isn’t going to be the solution.”
Reducing capacity from the market, such as having the gencos retire a part of their capacity, would be one. “But you have to come to an arrangement on how to compensate the producers that are going to take the plants out,” he said.
Another solution is to export excess electricity to either Malaysia or Indonesia, he added. “To me that would be the most logical solution. But from a political, economical point of view, that might be a more complicated one.”
EMA, while taking the stand that investments in generation capacity are commercial decisions taken by companies themselves, said it also recognises the importance of a well-functioning and sustainable market for both suppliers and consumers.
“We are thus facilitating the industry’s efforts to alleviate the current situation, and exploring other temporary measures to assist the gencos in the short term, where appropriate,” said an EMA spokesperson. “We will continue to monitor the situation closely, to ensure continued system reliability.”