MBI's Moving Stories
The Move from Fossil Fuel Plants to Renewable
2019 Volume I, Issue I
As US energy providers move from fossil fuel plants to renewables, it’s causing a dramatic effect on railroads large and small.
One small one in Arizona turned a wheel for the final time last year, and a second one in nearby New Mexico is expected to close in late April. Both railroads did relatively short hauls of high-grade steam coal to nearby power plants.In Arizona, the Black Mesa & Lake Powell was unique, an electrified 78-mile isolated line, not connected to the rest of the railroad world, hauling coal from Peabody Coal Company’s Kayenta Mine on the Navajo Reservation, to the Navajo Generating Station near Page. Operating on a modern 50kv system, the line was built in the 1970s and was owned by the consortium of utilities that owned and operated the power plant. BM&LP delivered the last load of coal to the power plant in August, 2019. Currently the power plant is being dismantled and the railroad’s electrical distribution system is being scrapped. For now, the rails and ties of this relatively modern railroad are intact as Navajo tribal leaders and others study future uses for the railroad.
In western New Mexico, the planned shutdown of a coal-fired power plant near Prewitt spells the end of operation for the relatively new (1985) 40 mile-long Escalante Western Railway, a common carrier owned by the Western Fuels Association to feed the soon-be-dormant Escalante Generating Station with coal from a pair of Peabody mines about 40 miles north, in the Star Lake region. There’s no word on the disposition of the locomotives, and the one mine that remains still serves customers via BNSF connection, but it would appear Escalante Western will be another name for the railroad history books by this summer. The electrical utilities that jointly own Tri-State Generating & Transmission Association’s Escalante Generating Station say their power needs will be met by newer, cheaper renewable sources. Government agencies and the Navajo Nation are studying construction of a new railroad line to serve the energy industry in Northwest New Mexico, and one proposal would make use of Escalante Western tracks for part of the route.
On mainline railroads, much of the coal that moves across the west originates at mines in Wyoming’s Powder River Basin and moves to generating stations as far away as Washington State, Texas and Missouri. Those trains are also on “borrowed time” as electric utilities bet on natural gas and renewables for their future generation needs. Coal has long been a staple of the railroad freight business. Mines and customers have closed, changed or moved over the years, and it will be interesting to see what happens to iconic coal trains over the next ten years. MBI stands ready to explain it all to the public and other stakeholders in the energy industry.