The share of electricity generated by coal during the first three months of this year was the lowest level for a first quarter in more than 30 years, with natural gas and other energy sources picking up market share, according to a report issued by the Energy Information Administration (EIA) Wednesday.

The decline in the share of coal-fired generation was offset by increased generation fueled by other energy sources, particularly natural gas, the EIA said. The U.S. electric power sector generated about 440 terawatt hours (TWh) using coal during the first quarter of this year, which is 26.5 TWh less than the amount generated by coal during the comparable period in 2010.

The amount of coal-fired generation in the first quarter accounted for 46% of total generation, which is 3% less than the same period last year and 6% less than the comparable period in 2008, the EIA said.

In the eastern United States, the spot price of coal has risen steadily for nearly two years, while gas prices have remained comparatively low, making gas a more attractive fuel for generation, the agency noted.

This disparity in fuel costs has contributed to the decline in coal’s share even in the Midwest Census Region, where coal has historically been the dominant fuel used in the power sector, the EIA said. In the first quarter, coal’s share of generation in the Midwest fell to 66.9% from 70.5%, while the region’s fuel share for natural gas gained two percentage points, it said.

In the South Census Region, coal’s share of generation also fell: to 47.7% in the first quarter from 54.5% during the first quarter of 2008, according to the EIA. The Northeast and West Census Regions are much less dependent on coal. Their first quarter coal shares were 24.9% and 29%, respectively, a drop of 8% in the Northeast and 2.6% in the West from the same period in 2008, the agency said.

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