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Tohoku Electric Power Co., Japan’s third-biggest coal user, will start trading coal swaps for the first time to manage price volatility risk as it prepares for liberalization of the electricity market.

The Sendai-based utility plans to begin using swap contracts against the Newcastle coal index price published by globalCOAL as early as this fiscal year, said Kaoru Hijikata, a deputy general manager of the company’s planning department.

Hijikata, who has worked at companies including Enron Corp., UBS Securities Japan Co. and Sumitomo Corp., joined Tohoku Electric in April to help expand the use of derivatives and help prepare for the planned deregulation.

From 2018 to 2020, the government plans to abolish the current power-tariff regulation that allows utilities to pass on high supply costs. The measures pose a major challenge to the power industry, Hijikata said.

“It’s called the electricity system reform, meaning it would fundamentally change the industry’s structure,” he said in an Aug. 27 interview.

Tohoku Electric’s executives “have a sense of urgency that the company could be swallowed up by another” if they fail to properly prepare, he said.

Bigger Japanese coal buyers are ahead of Tohoku Electric.

Electric Power Development Co., Japan’s biggest thermal coal user, started coal-trading in fiscal 2004 and swaps in fiscal 2006, spokesman Junichiro Hoshino said Wednesday. The Tokyo-based company, better known as J-Power, also owns a minority stake in Global Coal Ltd., a provider of a coal trading platform, Hoshino said.

Chubu Electric Power Co., Japan’s second-largest consumer of the fuel, is using coal swaps and other derivatives to mitigate risks, spokesman Ryo Tanikawa said Wednesday, declining to say when it started such operations. The Nagoya-based utility began a coal-trading venture with Electricite de France SA in 2008.

“When the power market is liberalized, electricity may not be sold as expected. That means power companies would have surplus coal and gas and have to sell them in market,” said Hijikata, who helped develop commodity derivative products at trading house Sumitomo Corp. “Every power company will build a trading function.”

Power utilities can also hedge against market swings by using the wholesale power exchange market and a futures market planned by the government as part of the reform, he said.

Weather derivatives would be another hedging option for Tohoku Electric and other power companies, said Hijikata, who pioneered such products in Japan before he joined Enron, a Houston-based giant in the derivatives business that collapsed in 2001.

Among the three instruments, “we can pick the cheapest and most effective one,” Hijikata said. “That’s what’s interesting about derivatives for the electricity business.”

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