IPP | Staff Reporter, China

China IPPs' profit stability sees hope in new coal price pass-through system

Analysts predict higher earnings visibility.

Fitch Ratings says the new Coal Price Pass-through Mechanism announced by the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) on 31 December 2015 will bring higher visibility and stability to China's independent power producers' (IPPs) earnings.

This new mechanism gives a much clearer guidance on the benchmark coal price for reference and when the tariff adjustments will occur, unlike the previous mechanism which did not provide clear details on these items.

The NDRC announced a cut in the on-grid power tariff for thermal power of CNY0.03 per kilo-watt hour (kwh) effective from 1 January 2016 - which the agency considers to be modest compared to the drop in Qinghuangdao coal prices of around 17% since the last tariff revision in April 2015. The tariff reduction is also moderate compared to the end-2015 dark spread for China coal fired plants of around CNY0.25/kwh as estimated by the agency. Nonetheless, we believe the tariff cut may negatively impact thermal power producers whose utilisation hours are under pressure.

Here's more from Fitch Ratings:

The NDRC launched new China Thermal Coal Price Indices by province in September 2015, which will serve as a reference for future tariff adjustments. The new tariff framework will result in annual tariff adjustments by referring to thermal coal prices in 2014 as the benchmark coal price. The review will take place at the end of every year, and adjustments will be effective from 1 January in the following year.

The new mechanism also sets different pass-through factors of between 0.8x to 1.0x for coal price changes of between CNY 30 to 150/ton from 2014 levels; any changes beyond this range will not be passed through. The effective pass-through of cost changes will vary from 0 to 71% within this band of coal price variations. This is lower than the 90% under previous regulations. However, we do not see a high risk of spreads materially contracting for power producers in the foreseeable future as the benchmark coal price (of 2014) is more than 20% higher than current coal price levels, and given our expectation of subdued coal prices in the medium-term.

The new mechanism also introduced an automatic pass-through of a coal-fired power on-grid tariff to commercial and industrial (C&I) retail power tariff, subject to a K-factor adjustment to account for cross-subsidies and various surcharges. Fitch believes that the Chinese government took advantage of current low coal prices to rationalize the relationship between coal prices, the coal-fired power on-grid tariff and the C&I retail power tariff.

However, this new mechanism only regulates the benchmark on-grid tariff, while power tariffs for "market power" through direct purchases by large customers or the power market exchange programme are not covered. While the new tariff regulations provide more clarity and certainty to thermal power producers, Fitch believes that coal-fired power IPPs will continue to face challenges with weakened utilization hours due to low power consumption growth and the addition of large amounts of thermal and renewable power capacity in the medium-term. Although current power sold through the power market or direct purchase is relatively small (less than 10%), more and more power is likely to be sold under the "market power" scheme as an increasing number of provinces will introduce such programs. IPPs also have a strong incentive to participate in "market power" programmes to gain higher utilization, albeit at discounted tariffs.

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