Xcel Energy's Chief Executive Officer Ben Fowke wrote in a July 23 letter to the federal Surface Transportation Board that rail carrier BNSF has fallen behind on coal deliveries to the 2,500-megawatt Sherco plant, according to the La Crosse Tribune (http://bit.ly/1zI7oks ). The plant, about 45 miles northwest of Minneapolis, generates nearly a quarter of the electricity Xcel delivers in a five-state Midwest region.
Xcel Energy is urging the board to focus on getting railroads to reduce a shipping backlog that could "impact the reliability of our electric grid."
BNSF is the sole rail service to the plant, which can serve some 1.9 million homes, according to Xcel.
Problems have left Xcel some 811,000 tons short of its ideal fuel inventory.
The plant is not set up to burn natural gas; if it runs out of coal, it would stop producing electricity.
While it is unlikely that the plant would run out of coal, there would be dire consequences if it did, said Tom Imbler, Xcel's vice president of commercial operations. He said if such an event occurred on a peak energy-usage day in July or August, he didn't know if the system could sustain itself.
Utilities in Arkansas, Kansas and North Dakota have reported similar problems, according to the national association of nonprofit rural electric cooperatives.
La Crosse-based Dairyland Power Cooperative says it could run out of coal at its Genoa generating plant by January if BNSF doesn't rapidly accelerate deliveries.
In February, Dairyland resorted to trucking coal to its plant in Alma when BNSF fell behind.
Now it says the railroad is not getting enough coal to an Iowa terminal where it is loaded onto barges for delivery to Genoa. Halfway through the Mississippi River shipping season, Dairyland says the coal supply has dwindled to "perilous levels" and is falling further behind each week.
BNSF has attributed delays to harsh winter weather and a surge in freight volume.
BNSF reports that it has added more than 200 locomotives and hired more than 400 new employees so far this year and has incentives to retain retirement eligible workers. In addition, the company has plans to spend more than $3.2 billion this year expanding its network, including a project to add a second set of tracks through La Crosse.
In letters sent last week, lawmakers from Wisconsin, Minnesota and Iowa expressed concern over the coal shortage and urged the board to work with BNSF to resolve the issue.