Natural gas futures prices have rocketed to 14-year highs in the past couple of months — during the lower-demand spring months, no less — and they are now trading at 3x where they were at this time last year. The CME/NYMEX Henry Hub futures for June delivery shot up to a high of $9.40/MMBtu in intraday trading last Thursday, the highest level we’ve seen since summer 2008, before expiring at $8.908/MMBtu, nearly $6 (~200%) higher than the June 2021 expiration settlement at just under $3/MMBtu. The newly prompt July futures retreated ~17 cents Friday to about $8.73/MMBtu, but that’s still nearly triple where July futures traded last year. It’s safe to say the low fuel cost of gas-fired power generation that defined the Shale Era has evaporated. Historically, at today’s sky-high prices, gas would have given up market share to coal in the power sector. However, the coal market is battling its own supply shortage and Eastern U.S. coal prices are at record highs. What does that mean for generation fuel costs and fuel switching? In today’s RBN blog, we break down the math for comparing gas vs. coal fuel costs.
A tight coal market and record-high coal prices in the Eastern U.S. have suppressed gas-to-coal switching in recent months, despite the gas market also contending with a supply squeeze and gas prices trading at Shale Era highs. The coal-market constraints have contributed to record, or near-record, gas demand in the power sector, with gas gaining market share of total generation fuel demand — in spite of wind and solar increasing their share of the pie. Generation fuel dynamics were a driving factor in the tighter gas market balances this past winter and also play a role in how power grids balance cost and reliability during times of extreme customer demand, such as the record-breaking heat wave expected to hit Texas in the coming days. In today’s RBN blog, we take a look at power generation fuel economics, particularly the fuel-switching phenomenon and its underlying drivers.