Stockpiling Coal For Winter Proves Problematic For Power Plants
ROBERT SIEGEL, HOST:
The northern United States is experiencing the first signs of fall as temperatures drop across the region. This is usually the season when power plants are stockpiling coal in preparation for higher electricity demand during the cold months ahead. Well, as Wyoming Public Radio's Stephanie Joyce reports, this year, building up those supplies is proving problematic.
STEPHANIE JOYCE, BYLINE: Coal leaves Wyoming's Powder River Basin in mile-long trains bound for power plants across the country. One of those is the Comanche power plant outside of Pueblo, Colorado. It consumes hundreds of tons of coal an hour - coal that's stockpiled at the plant.
CRAIG ROMER: And that pile will be, oh, a hundred feet tall at its normal operating height.
JOYCE: That's Craig Romer. He manages the fuel supply for Xcel Energy, one of the nation's largest utilities and the owner of the Comanche plant. During a recent visit to the facility, the stockpile was nowhere close to 10 stories tall.
From where I'm standing it's barely three stories. It doesn't reach anywhere close to the top of the wind barriers that they've set up around it. There is a coal train sitting here on the tracks right outside the plant but it looks like it is empty.
ROMER: You'd usually like to see about twice the amount of coal than what we have on the ground right now.
JOYCE: But Romer says coal trains haven't been making as many deliveries as usual to the plant, in recent months. The problem is this - oil development is booming in the northern Rockies and Dakotas. But there aren't enough pipelines to move it. So it's being loaded onto hundreds of thousands of railcars instead.
ROMER: We're competing for the same rails as that new traffic is competing for.
JOYCE: In addition to oil taking up capacity, there have been two years of bumper grain crops in the Midwest. And an exceptionally cold winter last year meant trains couldn't run as fast. Romer says the only way for the railroads to avoid a slow-motion traffic jam of epic proportions has been to keep some trains off the tracks.
ROMER: Five o'clock, if you put more cars on the road then nobody moves anywhere.
JOYCE: But that means some of the coal bound for Xcel's plants - not only in Colorado but in Minnesota, in Texas - isn't making it there. Romer estimates stockpiles for all of Xcel's coal-powered plants are at 60 percent of where he would like them to be.
ROMER: The industry, as a whole utility industry, is being impacted from the lack of deliveries.
JOYCE: The NSF is the railroad that's had the most problems with delays. The company declined to be interviewed. But spokesman Matt Jones said, in an e-mailed statement, that the NSF is investing $5 billion in improvements to its network this year. All of that is helping but the National Rural Cooperative Association's lobbyist Paul Gutierrez says for some member plants it's not enough.
PAUL GUTIERREZ: They've been trying to catch up because it has been a cool summer and they haven't had as much demand for electricity. But it's still not at the level where they should be.
JOYCE: Minnesota Power announced earlier this month that it was idling production at two plants in response to delayed coal deliveries. A number of other utilities have taken steps to avoid having to shut down. Gutierrez says several of his member plans are among those, including ones in Wisconsin and Kansas.
GUTIERREZ: Dairyland, Sunflower - both of those facilities - actually went into conservation mode to make sure that they had enough coal on hand to prevent a rolling blackout.
JOYCE: Gutierrez says last winter Dairyland had to truck in coal to avoid shutting down. That came with a hefty price tag since the transportation costs for trucking are much higher than transporting it by rail.
GUTIERREZ: Ultimately, those costs are borne by our members that can least afford to have their electric rates go up.
JOYCE: But Gutierrez says it's a price many customers would be willing to pay.
GUTIERREZ: Just imagine a milk plant. They didn't have power; the amount of milk that would be wasted because it would spoil.
JOYCE: The railroads predict the delays could last through 2015. For NPR News, I'm Stephanie Joyce.
SIEGEL: And that report came to us from Inside Energy, a public media collaboration focused on America's energy issues.
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