By Neanda Salvaterra

Not everyone in Europe has doubts about the future of coal.

While European utilities have been selling off their coal-fired power plants at a brisk pace, spurred by falling electricity prices and new rules against carbon-dioxide emissions, a least one buyer has been standing by to snap them up.

Since 2013, a little-known Czech company has purchased at least 10 coal- or lignite-fired power plants and related mines at fire-sale prices, in deals worth a total of more than $7 billion, according to data provider Dealogic. That gives it almost as much coal-derived electricity-generating capacity as Canada.

Energetický a Pr myslový Holdings' latest acquisition is a plant in Poland, which Electricité de France says it is selling to the company for an undisclosed sum.

As other businesses heave coal aside, EPH is one of a small group of companies seeking to wring profits from the fossil fuel. The group also includes General Electric Co., which nearly doubled its fleet of turbines for coal plants when it bought the power business of France's Alstom SA, and which plans to build coal plants in developing Asian economies such as India, where demand for cheap energy is high. Electricity of Vietnam Group, a utility firm, is heavily invested in building coal-fired power plants in Vietnam, where the government has projected coal-derived energy will rise to 49% by 2020, up from 25% in 2014.

In the U.S., Donald Trump's election as president has heartened the coal sector because of his promises to reinvigorate the industry. Delivering on the pledge could prove difficult, however, because of the cheapness of cleaner-burning natural gas, coal's primary competitor, and the fact that U.S. power companies have retired hundreds of coal-burning power plants.

Analysts say EPH is unusual in its aggressive acquisition of coal-fired generation assets in Europe, where government subsidies have fueled a surge in renewable-energy output. The resulting glut has depressed wholesale electricity prices, forcing conventional power companies to dial down, switch off or close shop.

Chief Executive Tomá? David said EPH aims to serve as a stopgap for Europe as it makes the transition to a power grid fueled by renewable energy sources such as wind and solar power. Electricity from those sources is often interrupted by clouds blocking the sun or a lull in wind.

Analysts say coal-fired plants are needed to ensure a stable power supply until renewable energy builds more market share or battery technology allows utilities to store vast amounts of energy until it is needed.

Moreover, Europe has few natural-gas sources, unlike in the U.S., where domestic supplies are abundant and readily available. Russia supplies about a third of Europe's gas needs but the relationship is contentious as Moscow has sometimes flexed its muscle by cutting off supplies.

"You need to have cheap, stable power plants stabilizing the system, and this is what we are operating," Mr. David said.

EPH also has a sizable portfolio of nuclear, hydropower and natural-gas plants and pipelines.

Many European utilities sold EPH coal assets, including lignite-burning plants, at cut-rate prices. Such plants, which burn a low-grade type of coal, are among the most polluting.

In September, Swedish utility giant Vattenfall sold German lignite assets to EPH valued at an estimated $3.8 billion, according to Dealogic, one of the Czech company's biggest deals. Germany's focus on building renewable power capacity has left it reliant on more polluting fuels such as lignite on days when wind and solar don't produce enough.

EPH also bought British coal plants from both German utility RWE AG and France's EDF, for undisclosed sums. In addition, the company signed deals to buy coal-generation assets in Italy for about $592 million from Germany's E.On and in Slovakia from Enel Produzione SpA in a deal valued at $514 million.

Bruno Brunetti, the managing director for global power at consulting firm PIRA Energy Group, said weak power prices make these investments questionable. "There are still doubts if the conventional generators will stay online," he said. "Generally the market is oversupplied."

EPH was formed in 2009 as a spinoff from Czech investment firm J&T group. It has grown to encompass more than 50 companies in seven European markets from Poland to the U.K.

Roland Vetter, the head of research at utility consulting firm PraXis Partners, says EPH is betting partly on European countries that have "capacity markets," in which companies are paid to be on standby and provide reserve energy when needed. In the European Union, 11 countries, including France, the U.K. and Italy, are at some stage of implementing backup power systems, according to the European Commission, the bloc's executive arm.

EPH is "hoping for a recovery in commodity prices and higher capacity payments in the future," said Mr. Vetter.

Mr. David said his company doesn't need such subsidies. The company said it can earn a profit by expanding in Eastern Europe, where energy demand is expected to increase. It intends to operate its plants until regulators tighten carbon-emissions regulations, and then convert some of its plants to burn alternative fuels.

"We have been investing in those most modern most efficient units that will probably stay economically in the system longer," Mr. David said.

Write to Neanda Salvaterra at neanda.salvaterra@wsj.com

(END) Dow Jones Newswires

November 25, 2016 05:44 ET (10:44 GMT)

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