“One of the largest utilities in the U.S. put $8 billion into a bet that natural gas would dominate American electricity much like coal had before. “We really consider this to be a growth play,” Tom Fanning, chief executive officer of Southern Co., said in an interview just five years ago, as his company set on its landmark acquisition: natural-gas distributor AGL Resources Inc.
Gas looked to be on the verge of generational dominance at the time. The American fracking boom had made the fuel superabundant and cheap, hastening coal’s rapid decline, while energy from wind and solar had higher costs and lower reliability. A giant utility like Southern would naturally see gas pipelines and storage as the key to a durable and lucrative future, meeting demand that would continue to grow.
Now those expansive time horizons are in deep doubt. In fact, there are flashing signs that the U.S. power sector is approaching peak gas, with demand topping out decades ahead of schedule. “The era of robust growth in the U.S. natural gas market is likely coming to a close,” says Devin McDermott, an analyst at Morgan Stanley. “It doesn’t mean the market falls apart. It doesn’t mean gas demand falls off of a cliff. It means that we need less new supply going forward.””