Fossil fuels continue to dominate the U.S. energy market. Even though renewable energy accounted for 17.1 percent of the electricity generated in 2017, fossil fuels totaled 62.7 percent, bringing in 2,526 billion kWh of energy, per the U.S. Energy Information Administration.

Of that 62.7 percent, natural gas led the way with a 31.7 percent share of electricity generated. Coal was a close second with 30.1 percent. Coal once held the dominant position within the energy market, but as coal reserves continue to decline, natural gas has taken over as the primary fossil fuel.

Let’s take a deeper look as to what exactly natural gas is, and what its future may hold.

What is natural gas?

According to the Union of Concerned Scientists, “natural gas is a product of decomposed organic matter, typically from ancient marine microorganisms, deposited over the past 550 million years.”

The decomposed organic material gets mixed with mud and sand on the sea floor, while it’s buried continuously. Once the organic material is in an oxygen free environment, it gets exposed to heat and pressure, which converts the matter into hydrocarbons. The lightest of these hydrocarbons live in a gaseous state known as natural gas.

Rather than giving off carbon emissions, natural gas gives off methane emissions. These are stronger, but with a much shorter lifespan; they leave the atmosphere sooner.

How natural gas continues to beat coal.

Cost has been a primary factor as to why natural gas is the most used fossil fuel. When it comes to energy production, it’s no secret that it needs to be efficient. Lack of efficiency usually leads to high costs, which is why natural gas has become the most used fossil fuel for electricity.

Summer usually yields the highest amount of electricity usage in the U.S. The hot afternoon days lead to higher usage of air conditioners and fans, which then leads to a higher demand for electricity. Because of this peak in the afternoon, electricity needs to be generated quickly, in order to meet the spike in demand.

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Natural gas plants start-up more quickly than coal plants, meaning that they’re able to meet these afternoon demands. Once peak time ends, the natural gas plants can be shut down in a few hours. During winter, the same rings true in the sense that natural gas continues to be in high demand.

However, winter has nothing to do with air conditioners and fans. On the flip side, it revolves around heating. Furnaces and water heaters consume a lot of electricity, and are usually two of the biggest energy spenders in a household.

Low natural gas prices and other factors have played a role in making natural gas the number one fossil fuel used. According to the EIA, “The share of electricity generation supplied by natural gas-fired power plants has increased over the past decade, while the share supplied by coal has fallen, primarily as a result of sustained low natural gas prices, increases in natural gas-fired capacity, and retirements of coal-fired generating capacity.”

What the future holds for natural gas.

The demand for natural gas continues to rise into the future. With coal reserves slowly drying out, natural gas presents a more efficient and cheaper alternative that will also reduce carbon emissions.

Renewable energy continues to increase its share of the energy market, as it accounts for 17 percent of market. With renewable energy growing, some have labeled natural gas as a bridge fuel: it’s allowed us to cut our dependency on coal by giving us a cheaper and more efficient alternative – while also giving us extra time to expand renewable energy.

One day we might finally be able to fully cross that bridge and become entirely self-sufficient through renewable energy.