Chapter 10  April 14th : Europe's Gas Outlook Transformed After Mild Winter

Europe has ended the winter of 2022/23 with a record volume of gas in storage – which leaves much less refill needed ahead of the next heating season in 2023/24.

Inventories in the European Union and the United Kingdom amounted to 632 terawatt-hours (TWh) on March 31, according to Gas Infrastructure Europe ("Aggregated gas storage inventories", GIE, April 13).

Stocks were at a record high for the time of year and an extraordinary 350 TWh (+80% or +2.40 standard deviations) above the seasonal average for the previous ten years.

The situation has been transformed from the same date last year when inventories were just 300 TWh and 53 TWh (-15% or -0.46 standard deviations) below the seasonal average.

As a result, prices have slumped, with front-month futures down to 48 euros per megawatt-hour on March 31 from 189 euros at the start of the heating season on Oct. 1 and a record 339 euros on Aug. 26.

Record Refill In 2022

Record end-of-winter inventories are a consequence of a record start-of-winter stock; a mild winter, especially in the first half; and significant cuts in industrial gas use.

The European Union and United Kingdom added an unprecedented 788 TWh of gas to storage in 2022 to prepare for a possible interruption of pipeline supplies from Russia.

The refill started on the second-earliest date on record (March 19) and continued until the latest date ever recorded (Nov. 13), lasting for 239 days compared with an average of just 203 days over the previous ten years.

Refill was also faster and more consistent than usual, with 3.30 TWh added per day compared with an average of 2.96 TWh in 2012-2021.

As a consequence, inventories started the traditional winter season at 996 TWh on Oct. 1 and continued building to reach 1,079 TWh on Nov. 13, a much higher and later peak than normal.

The scramble to fill storage regardless of cost, particularly in Germany, was responsible for causing futures prices to spike to a record high in July and August.

Mild Start to Winter

High prices coupled with government mandates to reduce consumption and warmer-than-normal temperatures through the first half of winter extended the refill season and delayed the onset of drawdown, a double benefit that stretched inventories even further.

The first part of the heating season was exceptionally mild in Northwest Europe, with only 860 heating degree days at Frankfurt in Germany by Jan. 15, which was 16% fewer than the average since 2000.

The second part of the heating season was also mild, but less exceptional, with 761 heating degree days from Jan. 16 to March 31, just 8% below the long-term average.

For Europe as a whole, both October and January were the warmest on record; warmth in January was especially significant because it is normally the month with the highest heating demand.

The emergence of warm weather in January, first forecast a month earlier, accelerated the slump in gas prices to 57 euros on Jan. 31 from 149 euros on Dec. 7.

Reduced Consumption

Europe's gas consumption was sharply reduced in winter 2022/23 compared with previous years.

The European Union's top seven consumers (Germany, Italy, France, Netherlands, Spain, Belgium and Poland) used 18% less gas than the average for the previous ten years between October and January.

High prices and government mandates to reduce consumption had their biggest impact on the most energy-intensive users.

Makers of fertilisers, steel, cement, ceramics, glass and chemicals all reported capacity closures or longer than usual shutdowns over the Christmas and New Year holiday period.

Households and other commercial users made less obvious reductions in consumption, mostly in line with warmer temperatures rather than signalling profound behaviour changes.

Plentiful Gas Stocks

Europe's gas inventories depleted by only 450 TWh between their peak in early November and their minimum in early April, compared with an average peak to trough drawdown of 588 TWh in the previous ten years.

Europe emptied around a third of its gas storage space over the whole drawdown period compared with an average of 53% over the previous decade.

The region has entered the 2023 refill season with storage almost 56% full on March 31, a record high for the time of year, compared with 26% at the same point in 2022 and a ten-year average of 33%.

The outlook for the rest of 2023/24 is therefore very different from 2022/23. Europe will need a smaller-than-average refill in 2023 which should relieve some of the upward pressure on prices.

Even if storage is topped up to the maximum, however, Europe will still need to discourage consumption next winter, which is likely to require some combination of industrial closures, recession and high prices later in the year.

Source: Reuters

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