Bloomberg Law
Jan. 5, 2018, 7:37 PM

Too Cold for Coal? Utilities Learning Lesson of Polar Vortex

Stephen Lee
Stephen Lee

Utilities are fighting to keep their coal from freezing in the cold, hoping to avoid a repeat of what happened during the 2014 polar vortex.

For coal boosters, the cold snap offers a chance to support Energy Secretary Rick Perry’s argument that coal-based generators should be subsidized because their fuel is always ready to go.

Four years ago, however, supply problems troubled the industry because many coal piles froze solid. Most of the anti-freezing techniques companies are using now aren’t new, like sprays and bulldozers, even if they haven’t always been widely used.

Best Practices

For instance, at Olympus Power LLC, which owns five coal-fired power plants along the East Coast, workers learned from the 2014 vortex to build coal piles that are densely compacted so water can’t seep between the cracks. That’s what causes freezing, according to Matt Cochran, Olympus’ asset manager.

NRG Energy now focuses on “proactively preparing and managing” coal piles before winter storms hit, David Gaier, a company spokesman, told Bloomberg Environment.

Utilities also have learned to burn higher-quality coal when the weather turns cold, Cochran said. That material is coarser and better able to handle cold temperatures than lower-BTU coal, he said.

“We learned that you have to spend extra money on the right pile of fuel,” Cochran told Bloomberg Environment.

Special sprays can be used to waterproof soft lignite coal, which absorbs water faster than hard anthracite coal, Cochran said.

If a coal pile does freeze, most companies run bulldozers over the piles to break up the ice, said Duke Energy spokeswoman Kim Crawford.

Coal can also freeze in transport, especially after it’s washed at the mine and then loaded onto a rail car while still wet. That was another problem in 2014, said Henry Zielinski, fuels manager at Northampton Energy Services.

Transportation hasn’t yet been a problem during the current cold snap, however, because most power plants keep several weeks’ worth of supply on hand.

Not as Bad as Polar Vortex

American Electric Power doesn’t expect that the current storm will ultimately be as bad as the 2014 polar vortex, because that event was preceded by heavy rain and snow that made the coal wet, said Tammy Ridout, a company representative.

“This cold snap is considered fairly normal winter weather and we don’t expect to see any disruptions to our fuel supplies,” agreed Randy Fordice, a spokesman for Xcel Energy.

Others disagree altogether that the 2014 vortex was really that bad for coal. For example, the North American Electric Reliability Corp. said in a report that the forced outage rate for coal during the vortex was lower than for any other fuel type, apart from nuclear.

“Frozen coal has not had the effect on operations that some have previously represented,” Vince Brisini, Olympus Power’s director of environmental affairs, told Bloomberg Environment.

To contact the reporter on this story: Stephen Lee in Washington at

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Rachael Daigle at