Lawrence and Douglas County

Lawrence and Douglas county

Westar’s coal supply reduced; disruptions in railroad service raise concerns

Utility fears alternative fuels could be needed to keep the lights on

March 27, 2006


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.

The process

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.


badger 12 years, 1 month ago

Get used to this. More is coming.

You better hope that this spurs them to diversify into renewable alternative energy options, or within a few years, winter heating bills will look more like house payments.

If you own your house, start now making energy-saving improvements. Better windows, more insulation, new furnace and water heater. They'll more than pay for the difference when costs keep going up or you go to sell the house. Start using fluorescent light bulbs (expensive to buy, cheap to run, last forever), install water-conserving showerheads to save hot water, look for a front-loading washing machine on sale. Look into a new air conditioner, if you use yours a lot in the summer.

There are firms that specialize in green housing. If you're really interested in keeping the bills low when energy costs go up again, contact one of those and see what can be done with your house.

If you rent, you can still install water-conserving faucets and showerheads, use fluorescent bulbs, and seal your windows or hang quilts in front of them in the winter.

Energy prices don't fluctuate like gas prices because they're not set by the utility company, they're set by the state. However, like gas prices, once they go up it's not all that likely they'll go down.

More rail expansion would be a temporary fix, maybe for a few years at most, but the only real long-term fix is for them to get into renewable alternatives, and use those for a substantial part of their energy base.

spikey_mcmarbles 12 years, 1 month ago

The Westar plants in Lawrence and St Marys can't burn anything except PRB coal without extensive modification to the controls systems. Each plant keeps 45 days worth of coal on site, so there's no shortage.

delta77 12 years, 1 month ago

Heaven forbid they'd have to start using something clean-burning to generate electricity in Kansas!

itsmecrkt 12 years, 1 month ago

Just a little note... the "Kansas Pacific" line is now owned by Union Pacific and still operates with empty coal trains heading west from KC (and other points east) to Denver thru Topeka, Salina, Sharon Springs and Limon. Loaded coal trains head east to KC and on to further destinations.

It's not used as extensively as it was in the past... used to have a good number of manifest trains and intermodal traffic. Mainly just coal and seasonal grain trains. One manifest train operates each way daily from KC to Salina and back.

Yeah, I rambled a little.

spikey_mcmarbles 12 years, 1 month ago

"Heaven forbid they'd have to start using something clean-burning to generate electricity in Kansas!"

PRB is the cleanest burning coal in the world, and natural gas is being phased out as an electricity source, as it's better used to heat houses. Nuclear power is the cleanest and cheapest way to produce electricity, but no one wants a nuc plant in their community.

Coal is here to stay. Be thankfull that we've got access to hard black clean burning coal, as opposed to the soft brown coal that is burned east of the Mississippi River.

badger 12 years, 1 month ago

It's also nice that we have access to even cleaner wind energy, if only we'd work a little harder at making that a reality. We're pretty close to making wind power a reasonable and realistic large-scale source of energy.

Coal is an acceptable interim energy source until we implement aggressive conservation and transition to renewable alternative energy sources, but it's got the same problem other fossil fuels do - it's gonna run out someday.

It's just not smart to base so much of your economy (because the price of everything eventually comes back to depend somewhat the amount of energy required to produce and transport it) on a source that you know full well will increase in cost out of proportion to inflation.

Nuke power is cleaner and cheaper, I'll admit. Three Mile Island and Chernobyl are unlikely as nuclear power plants are currently designed, built, and maintained. However, there's still that pesky disposal problem we haven't really resolved yet that gets most people a little bugged. If they could resolve that, I'd much rather live five miles from a nuclear power plant than a coal-burning one. Folks who parked too close to the coal plant for more than a few weeks at a time when I was in college ended up needing new paint jobs sooner than the rest of us.

Course, I'd also like to see a lot more people out there producing biodiesel. Apparently, as I found out this weekend, there are grants for people who want to start small-scale biodiesel plants, and it takes less than you'd think to set it up and keep it running.

badger 12 years, 1 month ago

So, just what's the 'Lonney Left' doing to keep research on how to permanently dispose of nuclear waste from progressing?

Mind you, those actually educated on the matter don't consider "Let's all just dump it in a cave under Nevada!" or "Let's just shoot it into space!" or "Let's dump it in a really deep trench in the ocean!" actual handling of nuclear waste - just another short-sighted and ignorant means of shifting the problem onto future generations. If by 'Lonney Left' you mean those who want there to be an actual permanent solution to the problem before a bunch of half-educated yayhoos go off touting nuclear as 'the perfect answer', then yeah, we're going to block you until you come up with a solution that doesn't boil back down to, "Just put it somewhere I don't have to see it so someone else can deal with its effects later."

I don't see a whole lot of science funding coming from the right, and I sure don't see a whole lot of science funding being blocked by the left, and I don't really know of anyone out there proposing that they have actually found a safe way to reclaim, reuse, or otherwise permanently dispose of nuclear waste (no, finding a way to turn it into bombs doesn't count either!) and getting shot down by the left.

average 12 years, 1 month ago

I'm pretty pleased with my solar/wind powered system that has saved nearly 15% of my electric bill (approx 1 MWh per year). Cost, $8 of clothesline and $2 of clothespins.

To keep up the coddled (air-conditioned desert) yet frenzied (no time for the clothesline) life, we will have to burn lots more coal. Natural gas production is falling off a cliff in N. America, and importing it is untenable. I'm very much pro-nuke, but the time to get anywhere near enough nukes built will be many decades. Even worse will be when gas gets expensive enough that "plug-in hybrid cars" add another few hundred GWh of demand.

bill_priff 12 years, 1 month ago

This is the set-up for the higher charges that are heading our way.

In the last rate case Westar was given the ability to pass the increased fuel prices on to the customer. This "pass through" provision was what Westar really wanted in the last rate case.

This article is the beginning of the blame game. "It is the railroad's fault we have to use more expensive fuels, and we have to charge you for it." Believe me, if Westar couldn't pass the higher energy prices on to you, then they would be working much harder to make sure that they could get the cheapest fuel possible.

For extra credit, you can look into who is going to profit from the more expensive fuels that they will be "forced" to burn.

Liberty 12 years, 1 month ago

Magnetic motor generators will be forthcoming soon. I think that it will be able to power a house or car after more development occurs. They run pollution free. They take advantage of permanent magnets and alternators to become self running after a battery start.

MyName 12 years, 1 month ago


America is the Saudi Arabia of coal. Unless we completely run out (which won't happen for 100 years), Nuclear Power will never be cheaper than coal. And when you compare the costs of a radioactive mistake, versus an accident at a coal plant, nuclear fission will never be safer than coal. The only reason we have a nuclear industry in this country is because of all of the gov't subsidies and handouts. Just the same as for ethanol. And believe me, the "loony left" is not behind all of those gov't handouts.

That being said, what Kansas needs more than anything is more wind power.

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