Electric power generated from U.S. natural-gas fired plants reached 6.37 million MWh on July 21, a record high according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s Hourly Electric Grid Monitor.

The EIA said despite relatively high natural gas prices, demand for natural gas-fired power was strong as a result of above-normal temperatures, reduced coal-fired electricity generation, and recent natural gas-fired capacity additions.

EIA said that this past July was especially hot, ranking as the third hottest on record in the United States. Electricity demand usually peaks in the summer because of demand for air conditioning.

Before this year, the previous daily peak for natural gas-fired electricity generation had occurred on July 27, 2020, when natural gas prices were historically low.

This summer, coal-fired power plants have not been used as much as in prior summers. EIA cited continued retirements of coal-fired generating plants, relatively high coal prices, and lower-than-average coal stocks at power plants that have limited coal consumption. The agency said that during May, coal inventories at power plants averaged 20% lower than the prior-year levels.

In June we wrote about how rail service issues were delaying coal shipments to utilities.

New natural gas-fired capacity has also played a part. Over the past 10 years, developers have added about 62 GW of combined-cycle gas turbine capacity, EIA said.

Coal plant operators seek flexibility

Electric power produced from coal has been declining in the U.S. over the past 10 years, falling to a 46-year low of 773,393 GWh in 2020.

The decline in U.S. coal-fired generation has mostly been a result of these plants becoming uneconomical compared with other sources, EIA said. Nearly one-third of the U.S. coal-fired fleet has been retired since 2008.

EIA reported that other coal plant owners have tried to make their plants more competitive and fuel flexible, rather than permanently shutter them.

The agency identified 13 U.S. plants that converted to become fuel flexible in the past five years. Eight of these plants are in the southeastern United States, mostly in Florida and the Carolinas. Arizona, Louisiana, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and Oklahoma each have one plant. The 13 plants have a total generating capacity of 16,522 MW.

The 13 fuel-flexible plants have collectively diversified their fuel mix, consuming increasing amounts of natural gas. The share of natural gas use versus coal use at these plants increased from 10% natural gas in 2018 to 30% natural gas late in 2019, before reaching 38% natural gas in 2020, according to data from EIA’s Power Plant Operations Report.

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