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Washington — Competing renewables and expected higher natural gas prices have prompted the US Energy Information Administration to forecast that natural gas consumption in the power sector will fall 3.2% in 2021 after witnessing slower growth in 2020.

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The agency, in its January Short-Term Energy Outlook, said electric generation consumed an average 31 Bcf/d in 2019, up 7% from 2018 because of new gas-fired generation capacity and competitive gas prices.

Declining power sector consumption in 2021 reflects competition amid continuing renewables capacity additions, the outlook said. The slowing consumption "also reflects a forecast of higher natural gas spot prices in 2021 compared with 2020, which would make natural gas less competitive against coal in power markets," EIA added.

Alongside the consumption trend, the agency outlook expects that total marketed gas production will slow in 2021 to an average 101.6 Bcf/d, down from 102.06 Bcf/d forecast in 2020.

PRICE SIGNALS

EIA Administrator Linda Capuano said the 2021 production decline comes as relatively low prices contribute to a reduction in gas directed drilling. But building on record production in 2019, still EIA expects a 3% increase in dry gas production growth in 2020.

"Most of the growth will come from associated gas in the Permian region," Capuano said.

In the nearer term, EIA's gas marketed production estimates for first quarter rose 0.11 Bcf/d to 102.31 Bcf/d, while EIA pared those back 0.20 Bcf/d for Q2. And the agency raised its gas-consumption estimates 0.51 Bcf/d to 105.05 Bcf/d for Q1, but kept its Q2 demand forecast roughly flat, lowering it only 0.01 Bcf/d to 74.7 Bcf/d.

SOFTENING DEMAND

EIA forecast that residential and commercial gas demand will decline 1% in 2020 from prior-year levels to average 23.2 Bcf/d amid lower forecasted heating demand. Further declines of 0.9% are expected in 2021, also on milder forecasts.

Industrial consumption, by contrast, is seen gets a boost from new chemical projects in 2020, when it is forecast to rise 4.6% before flattening in 2021.

As for prices, EIA lowered by 35 cents to $2.27/MMBtu its Q1 2020 forecast for Henry Hub spot natural gas prices and lowered its Q2 Henry Hub forecast 4 cents to $2.30/MMBtu. It forecasted prices to average $2.33/MMBtu in 2020, down 26 cents from the December estimate, and $2.54/MMBtu in 2021.

Production increases in 2020 are supported by planned expansions in LNG and increased pipeline exports to Mexico, EIA said. Net gas exports are seen rising to an average of 7.3 Bcf/d in 2020 and 8.9 Bcf/d in 2021, with LNG exports accounting for 6.5 Bcf/d in 2020 and 7.7 Bcf/d in 2021. The estimates are based on assumptions that Cameron, Freeport, and Elba Island LNG terminals place remaining trains in service by the end of 2020.

GENERATION MIX

On the power side, electricity consumption is seen dipping 0.4% in 2020, as milder summer temperatures soften residential demand, and staying flat in 2021. Retail sales to the industrial sector are also set to decline 1.1% in 2020 and 0.9% in 2021, according to EIA.

Despite gains by renewables, EIA expects gas will make up 38% on average of the US generating capacity in 2020, before declining to 37% in 2021. Renewables are expected to rise to 19% of the mix this year and 22% in 2021. Coal is forecast to decline to 21% this year and slightly less the next, and nuclear is seen dipping slightly below its average of slightly more than 20% in 2019 by 2021, reflecting five reactor retirements.

"After decreasing by 2.1% in 2019, energy-related carbon dioxide emissions are expected to decrease by 2% in 2020 and by 1.5% in 2021," Capuano said, pointing to a forecast of slowing GDP growth and less weather-related demand.