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US coal burn higher in December, but natural gas beats coal for 2016

Houston — US coal-fired generation surged in December, replacing natural gas as the nation's leading fuel for power generation for only the second time in 2016, the Energy Information Administration's Electric Power Monthly report showed Friday.

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But an increase in the use of gas for power generation toppled coal in 2016 as the nation's dominant generating fuel for the first time.

December's coal burn totaled 118.79 TWh, up 36.5% from November and up 32.5% from the year-ago month, and made up 34.4% of US power generation for the month. Coal made up 27.6% of US power generation in December 2015.

Gas burn in December totaled 96.4 TWh, up 1.9% from November but down 12.1% from December 2015, and made up 27.9% of US power generation for the month.

December was the first time gas-fired generation has dipped below 30% since February 2015.

The increase in coal generation and decrease in gas-fired generation was likely due to an increase in gas prices. The front-month NYMEX Henry Hub gas futures settlement price in December averaged $3.58/MMBtu, which was the highest monthly average since November 2014, when the price averaged $4.23/MMBtu.

For the full year, coal made up 30.4% of total US power generation, which is the lowest annual total since EIA records started for the calculation in 1950. For comparison, coal made up 33.2% of US generation in 2015 and 49% of US generation in 2006.

Gas plants produced 33.9% of US power in 2016, which was the highest total yet for the fuel, after contributing 32.7% of US power generation in 2015 and 20.1% in 2006.

Total US generation at utility scale facilities came to 345.2 TWh in December, up 16.1% from the previous month and up 6.4% from the year-ago month. For the year, US power generation totaled 4,078 TWh, down 0.2% from 2015 and down 1.9% from peak generation in 2007.

Also in December, US wind power peaked at 23 TWh, an all-time high. The December total was up 18.9% compared with the previous month and up 14.4% from the year-ago month.

For the month, wind power made up 6.7% of US power generation. The annual total came to 5.6%, up from 4.7% in 2015 and 0.7% in 2006.

--Andrew Moore,

--Edited by Keiron Greenhalgh,