Coal expected to surpass natural gas as dominant winter fuel source

In recent years, coal and natural gas have been dueling for the role of the nation’s largest electricity source, and it seems like coal will win that battle this winter.

Coal is expected to surpass natural gas as the most common source of electricity in December, January and February, according to an analysis released Friday by the U.S. Department of Energy. It’s a rebound for coal, which, after years as nation’s  dominant power source, was surpassed by natural gas in  until April 2015.  For the six months of 2016, natural gas supplied 36 percent of the nation’s energy, as compared to the 31 percent supplied by coal.

But now steadily rising natural gas prices means it will be cheaper to generate electricity with coal,  the department’s analysis predicts. While lower coal prices would encourage the power industry to rely more on coal, winter temperatures will also play a role. A colder winter, particularly in areas of the country that produce more coal, would increase the use of coal. But if winter temperatures are mild, natural gas prices would likely remain low, encouraging less coal use.

The Energy Department predicted in its October energy outlook that average natural gas prices would steadily rise in the coming months — by February prices are expected to be 40 percent higher than the price of coal-fueled electricity.

Despite the expected surge this winter,  coal production in 2016 is expected to the lowest since 1978, the Energy Department said.