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July 6, 2012

Monthly coal- and natural gas-fired generation equal for first time in April 2012

graph of monthly U.S. electricity generation by fuel, as described in the article text
Source: U.S. Energy Information Administration, Electricity Data Browser.
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Recently published electric power data show that, for the first time since EIA began collecting the data, generation from natural gas-fired plants is virtually equal to generation from coal-fired plants, with each fuel providing 32% of total generation. In April 2012, preliminary data show net electric generation from natural gas was 95.9 million megawatthours, only slightly below generation from coal, at 96.0 million megawatthours.

The 2011 and 2012 data shown above are preliminary and are subject to change (final 2011 data will be released this fall, and 2012 data will be revised at that time). Preliminary data are derived from a survey of a sample of large power plants, and final data come from a census of all power plants. For 2010, the difference between preliminary and final net generation data from all sources was 0.1%.

As shown in the chart above, there are strong seasonal trends in the overall demand for electric power. In April 2012, demand was low due to the mild spring weather. Also in April, natural gas prices as delivered to power plants were at a ten-year low. With warmer summer weather and increased electric demand for air conditioning, demand will increase, requiring increased output from both coal- and natural gas-fired generators.

The mix of fuels used to generate electricity—and specifically the competition between natural gas and coal—is dependent on several factors, many of which have been discussed in previous Today in Energy articles: decreasing coal share of generation, increasing coal stockpiles, rising coal exports, effect of natural gas prices, and natural gas consumption by sector.