In a normal year, the giant pit that contains hundreds of tons of coal at Westar Energy Inc.'s Lawrence Energy Center is full to overflowing. These days, though, the stockpile of fuel that keeps the city running is roughly three-quarters its usual size.
"It's normally filled up to the rim," Mark Yates, the plant director, said recently - waving his hands to illustrate the pile's normal bulkiness.
Delays and troubles along the railroad lines between Lawrence and Wyoming, where the coal is mined, have caused the stockpile to wane. It's an issue that has many utility companies fearing they might have to turn more often to alternative fuels and other costlier options, such as natural gas, to generate electricity.
"The nation is really in a pinch with this deal," said Randy Rahm, Westar's director of fuel services.
Rahm traces the current supply issues back to May 2005, when heavy snow and rain saturated a roadbed and caused two derailments - blocking access to the southern part of the Powder River Basin in Wyoming for more than 24 hours.
Other natural disasters, including the October flooding in northeast Kansas, have damaged railroad lines and interrupted supply lines. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway also spent summer and fall improving tracks along the route, temporarily reducing the number of trains that could travel there.
As a recent tour of the facility in northern Lawrence shows, it takes a lot of work - and a lot of hauling - to keep the lights on at homes and businesses in the city.
Trains on the BNSF Railway lines transport the coal from Wyoming to Lawrence as part of a long, continuous cycle.
The Powder River Basin's coal is in big demand because it can meet Clean Air Act requirements relatively easily. But moving it is expensive - transportation costs account for more than half the price of coal purchases, Rahm said.
BNSF Railway owns lines from Wyoming that serve plants as far east as Chicago and Birmingham, Ala. The lines also stretch to Brownsville, Texas, San Francisco and Seattle.
Westar has five 135-car train sets that haul about 15,700 tons of coal. Before heading for Lawrence, the trains receive their shipment at Arch Coal Inc.'s Black Thunder Mine in Wyoming. The train then makes its way across Nebraska through Alliance and Ravenna before it stops in Kansas City, Mo.
Then it travels west to Lawrence. It typically takes about 20 hours at each plant to unload the coal. About 17 trains per month pass through Lawrence, dropping off an average of 208,845 tons of coal per month, or 2.5 million tons per year.
Coal is unloaded from the train into the plant. The remainder not needed inside the plant is deposited into a mound on the stockpile, and equipment eventually smoothes the mound into the rest of the pile.
After unloading in Lawrence, the train then stops in Emporia, Dodge City, Pueblo, Colo., Denver and Thunder Junction, Wyo., before returning to the Powder River Basin. An average round-trip takes eight and a half days.
Roughly two-thirds of a ton can generate one megawatt of electricity. One megawatt can power about 300 homes for one day or one home for an entire month, Rahm said. There are more than 32,000 housing units in Lawrence.
Railroad capital investment
Pat Hiatte, general director of corporate communications for BNSF Railway, said the increased demand for coal from the Powder River Basin has his company working often with utility companies on transportation issues.
Despite concerns about interruptions, he said the company shipped 8 percent more Powder River Basin coal during January and February than during the same months in 2005.
"It's one of those things that is continuous, and you have to keep your eye on all that and invest accordingly," Hiatte said.
Through capital improvements, BNSF Railway is trying to ensure that its rail lines can handle the nation's demand for coal, Hiatte said. This year, the company has announced it will spend $2.4 billion on capital improvements, including expanding the railway yard in Lincoln, Neb., and adding about 50 miles of track on the joint line at the Powder River Basin and in Nebraska.
But in the short run, utility companies hope the planned rail improvements don't greatly disrupt their coal shipments and require them to burn more expensive fuels.
Rahm said that during the railroad maintenance in 2005 between 58 and 62 trains were loaded per day along the southern Powder River Basin, which was down from the normal 65 to 70 trains per day. That is why utility companies are concerned that line repairs this year will delay trains and shrink coal stockpiles.
"It takes a long time to get things moving again," Rahm said.