U.S. utilities led by Southern Co. (SO) are burning a record amount of natural gas for generating electricity without triggering a forecasted boost to the fuel’s price from near 10-year lows.

The power companies used 34 percent more gas in February than a year earlier, Energy Department data show. Even Atlanta- based Southern, historically one of the largest U.S. coal-plant operators, is on pace to consume more of the cleaner-burning fuel than coal in 2012 for the first time in its 100-year history. Utilities are the nation’s biggest gas consumers.

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