The United States is set to use more natural gas to generate electricity than ever before this summer as extreme heat sends demand for air conditioning skyrocketing.
In its latest monthly forecast, the U.S. Energy Information Administration projected the country to burn 4% more gas in July and August this year than during the same months of 2022.
For weeks now, heat waves have clocked unprecedented triple-digit temperatures across the U.S., from Puerto Rico to the Pacific Northwest. The combination of global warming and El Niño temperature patterns is only expected to worsen as the months go on, spurring more Americans to crank electricity-hungry air conditioning units to avoid the deadly effects of overheating.
“This is an interesting time to monitor the United States’ electricity mix,” EIA Administrator Joe DeCarolis said in a press release announcing the latest forecast. “As coal provides less and less power to the grid, we expect the contributions of natural gas and renewables in particular to increase.”
Renewables such as solar and wind are projected to pump out a 6% increase in electricity throughout the next month and a half compared to the same period last year. Nuclear plants, long in decline in the U.S., are on track for a 2% uptick in generation between now and August as the first new reactor built in the country in decades comes online.
The growth of those zero-carbon sources of electricity may only temper the effects of surging gas use. Since photovoltaic panels and wind turbines only generate electricity sometimes, gas has become the nation’s primary power source, both as a replacement for coal and as backup for renewables.
The price of natural gas has come down since soaring to the highest level since 2008 last July as the Russian invasion of Ukraine sent energy markets into chaos. Russia is the world’s No. 2 producer of the fuel behind the U.S., and until last year provided the bulk of Europe’s supply. While prices are expected to remain relatively low this summer in the U.S., analysts predict big swings will remain the norm for natural gas for years to come.
With prices falling, the number of new drilling rigs deployed at oil and gas wells across the U.S. fell for a second straight month at the end of June, a sign of a pullback even as the industry sees demand ratcheting upward.
Despite typically producing less carbon dioxide than coal, natural gas’s main ingredient, methane, is a potent greenhouse gas that traps 86 times more heat than CO2 during the first two decades that it circulates in the atmosphere.
Thanks to the American-invented hydrofracturing, or fracking, technique for drilling gas, the U.S. is the largest producer of natural gas in the world. The U.S. drills virtually all the gas it uses, and this year became the top exporter of liquefied natural gas ― a version of the fuel that’s superchilled to make transportation easier.