(John Kemp is a Reuters market analyst. The views expressed are his own)
* Chartbook: tmsnrt.rs/2tgvKac
By John Kemp
LONDON, July 5 (Reuters) - The U.S. natural gas market has rebalanced with higher prices steadying production while reducing demand from electricity generators and making room for increased exports.
Higher prices have averted the stock crunch many analysts feared in 2017 as a result of rising exports and the start up of a large number of new gas-fired combined cycle power plants.
During the first six months of 2017, prices for next-month delivery at Henry Hub were almost $1 per million British thermal units or 46 percent higher than in the first half of 2016.
Gas prices paid by electricity producers were up $1 per million British thermal units or 39 percent in the first four months of the year, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.
Power producers generated 349 Terawatt-hours of electricity from natural gas between January and April and used 2,611 billion cubic feet of gas in the process (“Electric Power Monthly”, EIA, June 2017).
But gas-fired generation was down 15 percent compared with the same period in 2016 while the volume of gas consumed fell by 14 percent (tmsnrt.rs/2tgvKac).
By contrast, total electricity generation from all sources was down by less than 2 percent compared with the prior year.
Coal-fired power plants were the main beneficiaries from higher gas prices, increasing their electricity generation by almost 7 percent.
Coal-fired plants operated at an average of 49 percent of their maximum output between January and April compared with 44 percent in the same period in 2016.
By contrast, gas-fired combined-cycle units operated at 48 percent of their maximum output, down from 53 percent in 2016.
Higher gas prices seem to have arrested the slide in gas production, with output down by 4 percent compared with the previous year but showing signs of stabilising.
The ramp up in oil drilling since May 2016 in response to higher oil prices has also boosted associated gas output.
Stabilising gas output and reduced consumption by electricity generators has freed up gas for export while leaving inventories at comfortable levels.
U.S. gas exports increased nearly 50 percent to 1,045 billion cubic feet in the first four months, while gas imports were up just 6 percent to 1,063 billion cubic feet.
As a result, net imports shrank from 303 billion cubic feet in January-April 2016 to just 18 billion cubic feet in January-April 2017.
Working gas stocks in underground storage stood at 2,816 billion cubic feet on June 23, which was 313 billion below 2016 but 183 billion above the five-year seasonal average.
Storage injections have been broadly tracking the normal seasonal trajectory, especially once adjusted for the slightly warmer-than-average start to the cooling season.
Weekly builds have been running a little below the five-year average but are higher than in 2016 once adjusted for airconditioning demand.
For the time being, the market appears fairly balanced, with stocks neither excessive nor tight, and with front-month futures prices around $3 per million British thermal units.
“Hedge funds turn bearish on U.S. natural gas”, Reuters, June 12
“U.S. natural gas prices tumble as power producers switch back to coal”, Reuters, June 5
"U.S. natural gas prices rise to limit summer power burn", Reuters, March 31
Editing by Edmund Blair