The once and future king |

The once and future king

Coal making a comeback into energy dominance

Mike Lawrence

Coal is always – always – burning at Hayden Station.

“We run capacity, at full base-load, all the time,” said Sharon Brady, a career engineer who speaks with a drawl acquired in her hometown of Amarillo, Texas.

Brady is director of Hayden Station, the coal-fired power plant in western Routt County that is staffed around the clock and burns a mountain of coal every day. The plant is owned and operated by Xcel Energy, which has more than 1 million electric customers in Colorado and is one of the largest utilities in America. Hayden Station’s tall, cylindrical cooling towers rise into the sky near Yampa Valley Regional Airport, a familiar sight for travelers on U.S. Highway 40.

But what goes on inside the plant may be unfamiliar.

On any given day at Hayden Station, boilers as tall as 15 stories burn coal at 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit. Coal dust covers floors, shot out of microscopic holes in any of countless pipes. Electricity-generating turbines spin at 3,600 revolutions per minute, often clearing other moving parts by thousandths of an inch. Conditions inside the boilers are monitored live by a state-of-the-art computer and video system. And in an environmental facility nearly as large as the plant itself, more than 12,000 fiberglass bags work like vacuums to suck polluted emissions out of the air.

Earplugs are mandatory.

“It’s almost like a controlled explosion in the boilers,” technical specialist Glenn Jones said. “Ground-up coal is like gunpowder.”

The plant is a living, thriving example of how, despite all the attention given to renewable resources and booming natural gas and oil industries, coal is still king when it comes to energy in the West.

Reaching out

Hayden Station produces 446 megawatts of electricity, enough juice to keep the lights on for nearly half a million people.

“We tie into the whole Western (power) grid, even into California,” Brady said. “And we wouldn’t operate if we didn’t have coal.”

But they do. The 95 employees at Hayden Station burn 5,000 tons of coal every day, or more than 1.8 million tons per year, Jones said. Those employees are fueling not only local power entities such as the Yampa Valley Electric Association, but also local economies and livelihoods that simply would not function without the black, dusty mineral that is as embedded in Northwest Colorado’s heritage as in its earth.

And like power generated at Hayden Station, impacts of local coal-related industries are felt far beyond Northwest Colorado.

The Industrial Co. is a Steamboat Springs-based industrial contracting company with annual revenues of more than $1.2 billion. Not only has TIC contracted on coal mining facilities in Wyoming and Utah, but coal-fired power plants built by TIC in South Carolina, Florida, Utah and Texas generate a total of more than 2,000 megawatts of electricity, powering the equivalent of 2 million homes across America.

“Coal is the backbone of electric production,” said Jones, who has worked at Hayden Station since 1985. “We’re here all the time.”

Burning demand

About 13 miles southeast of Hayden Station, a constant river of trucks hauls coal to the power plant from Twentymile Coal Co.’s Foidel Creek Mine, a sprawling, 40-square-mile operation in rural Routt County.

In 2005, the mine known simply as Twentymile produced 9.6 million tons of coal. Mine officials hope to produce 12 million tons annually by 2008, using new technology, more manpower and more land to keep up with the growing, nationwide demand for power.

More coal lies a little farther west.

Less than 30 miles from Hayden Station is the Craig Station, a 1,300-megawatt facility owned primarily by Tri-State Generation and Transmission. Employing 300 workers on a 1,120-acre site, Craig Station is the largest coal-fired power plant in Colorado, a state that produced 36 million tons of coal in 2006.

The huge scope of those numbers became evident at a May energy conference at the Holiday Inn in Craig. Hosted by Yampa Valley Partners and titled “Fueling Thought,” the conference featured a parade of speakers representing a variety of energy industries.

The overriding mood at the three-day event was excitement, fueled by a potential for energy development that has not been seen in decades.

Stuart Sanderson, president and chief operating officer of the Colorado Mining Association, said energy development is held back only by a lack of infrastructure to transport materials, and environmental regulations that he said would boost costs for coal and energy production.

“The future of coal is bright – absent mandates for greenhouse gas reductions,” Sanderson said, noting the United States has 27 percent of the world’s coal reserves, more than any other nation.

Sanderson acknowledged the coal industry is taking steps to reduce harmful emissions.

“We’re looking for constructive solutions to the carbon footprint,” he said.

An uphill climb

At the Craig energy conference, Xcel spokesman Quinn Kilty said Xcel is the nation’s largest supplier of wind power. An affable man dressed in a sharp suit, Kilty touted the fact that 1 percent of Xcel’s energy generation in Colorado comes from renewable sources.

But that percentage pales in comparison to how much of Xcel’s energy in Colorado is from coal: a whopping 68 percent.

Coal is where the money goes.

Last year, for example, Xcel had revenues of about $10 billion. In 2005, construction began on a $1 billion expansion of Xcel Energy’s Comanche Station power plant in Pueblo. The new, 750-megawatt, coal-fired plant – dubbed Comanche 3 – is expected to begin generating power in 2009.

Carol Tombari, spokeswoman for the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Golden, said a fundamental shift in thinking is needed to move Colorado, and the nation, onto cleaner sources of energy.

Tombari said energy companies and utilities turn to coal because it is a readily available resource and – perhaps most important – does not ask consumers to change conservation habits or pay costlier electric bills.

“Coal is the default fuel for electricity generation,” Tombari said. “We’re a society that buys bottled water. We pay $4.50 for a cup of coffee. What are your values?”

Raising the bar

Colorado voters showed their values in last fall’s election. Gov. Bill Ritter campaigned on a “New Energy Economy,” a promise to promote renewable energy development and attract new industries to Colorado. That promise got off to a quick start at the Capitol this spring.

House Bill 1281, the cornerstone of the Legislature’s energy conservation efforts, requires large utility companies to generate 20 percent of their electricity with renewable sources by 2020.

The bill raises the bar set in 2004 by Amendment 37, which requires 10 percent renewable sources by 2015. By tripling its wind power portfolio, Xcel Energy will reach that 10 percent goal this year.

“Every megawatt hour that is produced from the wind farm will offset natural gas and coal use in Colorado,” Xcel spokeswoman Karen Hyde said at the May groundbreaking ceremony for a massive new wind farm in Logan County.

On the longwall

Meanwhile, growth in the coal industry is steaming ahead.

Keith Haley is general manager of the Colowyo Coal Co., which operates the Colowyo Mine in Moffat County. Colowyo is one of two mines that supplies coal for Craig Station. The other is the Trapper Mine, owned by Trapper Mining.

Haley told the energy conference crowd that in his estimation, not only does Western Colorado have 2.5 billion tons of untapped coal, but also, 88 percent of that coal would be economically viable to extract.

“The magnitude of coal available : is huge,” Haley said.

Officials at Twentymile feel the same way.

Operations are expanding at Twentymile, which since 2004 has been owned by St. Louis-based Peabody Energy, the world’s largest coal company. In the past year, mine officials hired about 100 additional employees and completed installation of a new, $65 million longwall system to boost productivity.

The longwall is a mechanical mining monster that includes a 98-ton shearing machine to scrape coal out of the earth; 150 metal plates, or “shields,” that each weigh 35 tons and support the low roof of the mine shaft; a 1,000-foot conveyor belt; and computerized hydraulic machinery to control it all.

Production supervisor Troy Madsen has worked at Twentymile for 11 years. Just after 8 a.m. on a frigid Thursday last winter – as temperatures dipped below zero outside but soared above 100 degrees in the furnace-like mine – Madsen dropped three sections of the roof to demonstrate how to move and operate the longwall.

“It’s a rush. Once you get the shields moving, the roof starts collapsing in behind you,” Madsen said. “Once it finally comes, it’ll start popping and banging : oh, man, it’s a rush. It’s that kind of stuff that keeps me coming down here.”

Even with a record-setting year of safety in 2005, conditions at Twentymile, as at any coal mine, can be brutal. Workers constantly endure extreme heat, darkness, dust and proximity to heavy, powerful machinery.

“I’ve seen guys lying in fetal positions,” utility man Ken Ferrier said of working on the longwall while the roof is collapsing, or while the shearing machine is “chewing the face” of the 8 1/2-foot thick coal seam at a speed of 196 feet per minute.

But the rugged work is rewarding. New employees start at $18 an hour and can earn $26.30 an hour after one year, said Ron Spangler, Twentymile’s director of human resources.

The mine currently employs more than 500 workers.

Digging to do

The CMA estimates coal provides more than 72 percent of the electricity used in Colorado. Tombari, of the renewable energy lab in Golden, recently placed that figure at 76 percent. But both agree the second-highest power source in Colorado is natural gas, at slightly more than 20 percent. The remaining production, less than 5 percent, comes from renewable sources such as solar, wind and geothermal power.

The size of that gap means coal is not only the past and present of Colorado energy, but also its future.

“There’s no way that we’ll ever get rid of the base-load power (need) that’s met by coal,” said Routt County Commissioner Doug Monger, whose grandfather mined coal north of Milner for 20 years.

On a sweltering summer afternoon at the Routt County Courthouse, Monger reclined in his office and remembered a time when his grandfather, John Monger, hauled coal to Steamboat Springs in a horse-drawn sleigh – like a soot-faced Santa Claus spreading electricity across historical Routt County.

“It’s been around a long, long time,” the commissioner said.

But a vast amount of coal remains in the ground.

Driving around the Twentymile site last winter, Spangler pointed out spots on a map that detailed where mining operations could expand.

“We’ve got a lot of places in Northwest Colorado to mine,” Spangler said, citing the Williams Fork area near Craig. “We could open that one up in two years if the market dictates it.”

The market likely will.

Monger, who also is president of Colorado Counties Inc., said electricity was a hot topic of discussion at a CCI convention earlier this year. Industry officials said that, largely due to rapidly growing natural gas and oil production on the Western Slope, Colorado could soon need infrastructure for 4,900 additional megawatts of electricity. One megawatt serves 850 to 1,000 families.

That amount of additional infrastructure is equivalent to more than 10 Hayden Stations.

Monger has said increasing power demands will be “just as traumatic to the economy” as Colorado’s well-publicized water battles.

“I have to believe there’s a lot of future in the coal market,” Monger said.

Cleaner skies

The question defining the future of coal is not whether it will be extracted and burned, but how clean that burning will be.

It’s a question that has been asked for years.

On Oct. 6, 1996, a local Sierra Club chapter sued the owners of Craig Station, alleging the plant exceeded opacity – or air transparency – pollution limits, violating the federal Clean Air Act. The club accused Craig Station officials of exceeding visible pollution limits about 14,000 times between 1991 and 1996.

In January 2001, the two sides reached a settlement agreement that required the Craig Station’s owners to invest more than $100 million in environmental upgrades.

Work on the upgrades began in 2002, when Tri-State and other Craig Station owners began a $121 million retrofit at the plant. Environmental protections at Craig Station now include a wet limestone scrubber system, which removes 90 percent of the plant’s sulfur dioxide by spraying a lime mixture into ash and gas emissions; a dry lime system that also catches sulfur dioxide; a vacuum-like “baghouse” to collect ash; burners that reduce the formation of nitrogen dioxide; and a 24-hour emissions-monitoring system that checks for compliance with federal and state emission standards.

In 1998, Xcel Energy began the $130 million installation of similar equipment at Hayden Station – essentially building an entirely new facility onto the power plant.

“Now we remove 99.9 percent of the ash that’s in the exhaust coming out of the boiler,” Jones said, calling it a “vast reduction” in the amount of emissions released by the plant.

“The technology is constantly evolving. It’s getting better all the time.”

While the equipment in place reduces sulfur and nitrogen emissions, Jones said regulatory entities such as the Environmental Protection Agency are not currently monitoring carbon dioxide or mercury emissions at Hayden Station.

“That’s something the industry is starting to look at – we’re just getting into that phase now,” Jones said. “We’re well below the carbon dioxide limits, and we’re close to the level where we may or may not fall under the new mercury guidelines. : With the emphasis on global warming, I think everybody is looking at everything they can.”

Beyond control?

Jones said the new Comanche plant in Pueblo will represent a significant change in the cleanliness of coal-fired electricity production.

“While they double the amount of power, they’re going to have net reduction in emissions,” Jones said, citing new pollutant-capturing technologies at the plant.

Monger said when it comes to Colorado’s future, cleaning up coal is more important than the development of renewable energy sources.

“If we’re going to do something good for the environment, I think the best thing we can do is figure out how to make coal – being our backbone – as clean as possible,” Monger said. “The industry has really come a long way. It used to be hugely environmentally stressful, but with new technology, it’s now hugely efficient, productive and beneficial to Routt County.”

And to much of the nation. Colorado ships coal to 27 states. The CMA estimates the 36 million tons of coal produced in Colorado last year had a value of $974 million.

That value could soon rise dramatically.

Every three days

In what was by far the most sobering presentation of the “Fueling Thought” energy conference, geologist Vince Matthews – director of the Colorado Geological Survey – spoke about current and future impacts of worldwide population growth, particularly in China and India.

“The statistics of what’s going on in China are mind-boggling,” he said.

Matthews said China built 70,000 new supermarkets in 2005. In 2006, it became the third-largest car manufacturer in the world. The country has plans to build the equivalent of three Manhattans to support its population of 1.3 billion people.

The United States has a population of about 302 million.

Largely because of its skyrocketing population and power needs, the Chinese government is struggling to meet self-imposed emission standards for coal-fired power plants, many of which use outdated, inefficient cleaning technologies.

The demand is simply too great.

China consumes 1.9 terawatts of electricity, compared to 1.1 terawatts consumed by the U.S. In 2006, China produced 6.2 billion tons of carbon dioxide, compared with 5.8 billion tons in the U.S. This year, Matthews added, China will begin importing coal to support its rate of one new coal-fired plant coming on-line every three days.

Data released last month by the Netherlands Environmental Assessment Agency names China as the world’s top producer of greenhouse gases, passing the U.S. by an estimated 8 percent.

“This whole energy thing is pretty scary, and a lot of it is beyond our control,” Monger said. “We can do all we want to do, and China is still dumping unclean coal into the environment.”

Meanwhile, on a sweltering July day at Hayden Station, Jones talked about the growth of Xcel Energy and continuing plans for the expansion of coal power in Colorado.

“We’re trying to keep ahead of the game,” Jones said. “But right now, they’re saying we can’t build fast enough to keep up with the demand.”

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