May 1, 2022 - Representatives from the coal industry testified in Washington Wednesday about rail service issues that could put a strain on the nation’s power grid.
Coal use saw a resurgence last year, as higher natural gas prices and a stronger economy created more demand for electricity generated from coal.
But coal producers and consumers struggled to take advantage of those favorable conditions because of poor rail service, industry leaders told the Surface Transportation Board.
Coal shipments have been delayed because of lack of train crews, lack of locomotives and cars, and because of mechanical problems, they said.
“We would have run out if we had not curtailed generation at our coal-fired facilities,” said Emily Regis, fuel services manager for Arizona Electric Cooperative.
John Ward, executive director of the National Coal Transportation Association, testified that 75% of power plants nationwide have less than 40 days of coal stockpiled. He said 20 % of power plants have less than 10 days of coal on hand.
“Dozens of generating units have been idled or are operating at very low capacity today as utilities attempt to conserve fuel for summer demand that is right around the corner,” he said.
Late last year, coal stockpiles fell to their lowest since 1978, Ward told members of the board.
The summer and winter months are when demand for electricity peaks. The rail service problems have affected other industries as well, including agriculture and manufacturing.
The Surface Transportation Board also heard from railroad labor organizations and executives. It could impose conditions on the railroads to improve service, but it is not yet clear what those might be.
Appalachian Power and Mon Power are among the utilities that have struggled to maintain an adequate supply of coal. CSX and Norfolk Southern are the primary rail companies in Appalachia.
Coal generated 22% of the nation’s electricity in 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration.