Nov 20, 2008 (CIDRAP News) – A new report from the University of Minnesota warns that an influenza pandemic could disrupt the coal industry, thereby endangering the nation's significantly coal-dependent electric power system and everything that depends on it.
"Despite regional differences in coal usage, a pandemic is likely to break links in the coal supply chain, thus disrupting electrical generation. This has the potential to severely endanger the bulk electrical power system in most of the United States," says the report from the university's Center for Infectious Disease Research and Policy (CIDRAP), publisher of CIDRAP News.
The report says that current federal preparedness plans do not address the possibility of power supply problems resulting from reduced coal shipments during a pandemic. A key planning gap, it says, is that federal plans put coal industry workers among those last in line for pandemic vaccines and antiviral drugs.
The authors, CIDRAP research assistant Nicholas Kelley, MSPH, and CIDRAP Director Michael T. Osterholm, PhD, MPH, recommend that power plants stockpile coal to last much longer than the average 30-day supply they have now and that the nation prepare now for disruptions in the coal-supply chain and electrical service. They also urge that coal industry workers be put in the highest priority group for pandemic vaccines and antivirals.
In 2007, the nation's 620 coal-fired power plants supplied 48.6% of the nation's electric power, the report says. The reliance on coal varies by region, ranging from 74% in the Midwest to 5% on the West Coast.
Almost 40% of the nation's coal production in 2007 came from the low-sulfur mines in Wyoming's Powder River Basin (PRB), which yielded 453.6 million tons, according to the report. With mines from neighboring Montana included, the basin's 17 mines produced 479.5 million tons. Most of this coal is hauled by train to distant power plants, some as far away as Georgia.
A pair of Wyoming train derailments in May 2005 suggested how an interruption in coal from the PRB could affect the energy industry. Two coal trains on a 103-mile line that connects the region's coal fields with the national rail network derailed on consecutive days in May. The line, which has three tracks, was out of service for 3 weeks.
During the shutdown, power plants burning PRB coal had to draw down their stockpiles. "By September 2005, many power plants were down to less than 10 days of coal in their stockpile, with some reporting only 2 days of coal on hand," the report states. "Plant Schere, in Juliette,Georgia, for example, . . . was reduced to 2 days of coal and chose to import coal from Indonesia in an effort to rebuild its coal stockpile."
As a result of the incident, 25 of 27 utilities and other entities that relied on PRB coal took coal-conservation steps, such as buying electric power from other utilities, reducing generating time, and buying coal from other sources. In the wake of the episode, the energy industry was still rebuilding coal stocks through 2007, the federal Energy Information Administration reported.
"The disruption in 2005 could've been catastrophic if we didn't have the coal conservation strategies the report talked about," CIDRAP's Kelley said in an interview. "People say 2005 wasn't bad, but those conservation strategies likely wouldn't be available in a pandemic. That's one of the big take-homes from the report."
Kelley and Osterholm also examined records related to the flu pandemic of 1918 and found that it caused "serious disruptions" in coal supplies. Their report doesn't cite evidence of effects on energy production, but anthracite (hard coal) shipments dropped about one sixth, there were reports of coal shortages in New York City, many mines cut production, and some had to shut down for weeks.
Gaps in guidance documents
The authors reviewed a dozen pandemic planning guidance documents, including those from the federal government, the World Health Organization, and energy industry groups such as the North American Electric Reliability Council. While one plan, that of the National Infrastructure Advisory Council, notes the importance of coal transportation, "none of the 12 documents prioritizes the mining of coal," the report says. "This absence is likely due to coal not being listed as a critical infrastructure or key resource."
Further, coal industry workers, depending on their age and health, are classified with the general population, the lowest priority group, for access to pandemic vaccines and antivirals, the report says. Critical transportation workers, such as train engineers, rank slightly higher—in the third tier—for a severe pandemic, but are placed in the general population in a moderate pandemic, according to the federal allocation plan.
The report asserts that federal pandemic plans have failed to "(1) conceptualize the magnitude of supply chain disruptions that will occur in a global just-in-time economy, (2) address how to prevent pandemic-related electric power disruptions, and (3) offer guidance on how to respond if electrical power is disrupted during a pandemic."
The authors conclude, "Current levels of pandemic planning are likely insufficient to sustain the coal supply chain during a pandemic; the link between the public health response and reliable access to coal-fueled electricity is neither understood nor addressed in current pandemic plans in the United States." They add that the public health sector would have great difficulty functioning without a stable supply of electricity during a pandemic.
The reasons for this gap, the authors suggest, include the perception that pandemic planning is largely a public health issue, the lack of a meaningful model or conceptual framework for assessing pandemic-related supply chain disruptions in today's economy, and a lack of leadership in pandemic planning for the nation's critical infrastructure.
Fuel left out of the picture
In an interview, Osterholm said pandemic planning in the electric power industry has focused on the power plants and components downstream from them, such as the transmission lines, giving little attention to fuel supplies. In part this reflected a planning model from Ontario, which didn't address fuel, because the power plants there are mostly hydroelectric.
"The coal industry was almost forgotten. The fact that coal miners were not placed in any of the top three tiers for vaccines is indicative of that," Osterholm said.
Utility regulatory agencies have generally ignored the issue, he added. "This has almost been a non-issue for them; they have not made coal stocks for a naturally occurring event like a pandemic a priority in any way. It's not on their radar screen."
The report recommends four steps to address the vulnerability of the coal and power industries to pandemic-related disruptions.
The first is to increase power-plant coal stockpiles so that plants could keep going longer if coal shipments are interrupted. Currently, stockpiles reach their annual peak as utilities prepare for peak summer power demand. The report says this current peak should become the year-round minimum stockpile at all coal-fired plants.
Second, coal miners and support workers should be in the highest priority group for access to antiviral drugs, pandemic vaccine, and other critical products and services. "The entire coal supply chain, from mine to transport, and critical electrical-sector employees, should be placed in tier 1 of the federal vaccine allocation plan," the report states.
Third, the nation should plan for disruptions in the coal supply chain. Without careful planning, the disruptions may be similar to what happened after the 2005 derailments: "Coal shipments are likely to be reduced by at least 15% to 20% for periods up to 60 days," the report says.
Finally, the country should "anticipate and develop strategies for responding to disruptions in electrical service." Utilities are prepared for outages caused by storms, but most are not prepared to deal with fuel shortages, because they are rare and localized, the report asserts.
Increasing stockpiles tops the list
The most urgent of the four steps is to increase power-plant coal stockpiles, Osterholm said. With larger stockpiles, he said, "Even if the mines go down or rail service is interrupted, we may be able to get through extended periods of time until we can get the mines back up and running and the trains moving."
He added that even if miners have priority access to pandemic vaccines, they might still have to wait months for a vaccine well-matched to the pandemic virus. "Increasing coal stocks gives us a better opportunity to reduce that impact," he said.
The report says energy industry experts are aware of pandemic-related risks, but little has been done about them, mainly because of the cost of increasing power-plant coal stocks in current market conditions. In the 1970s, power plants kept a 2- to3-month supply of coal on hand, but utility commissions encouraged them to reduce that to 30 days to save money.
"Most public utility commissions will not allow power companies to raise their electricity rates solely for the purpose of increasing their coal stocks," the document states.
Also, Osterholm acknowledged that spending money to build up coal stocks is likely to be a tough sell amid the current economic downturn. "I realize that you can't ignore the realities of this historic financial crisis, but if we don't address these issues, we'll pay a very heavy price at the time of the next pandemic," he said.
Miners union endorses report
After receiving a copy of the report, a spokesman for the United Mine Workers of America (UMWA) strongly endorsed the recommendation that coal miners have priority access to pandemic vaccines and antivirals.
"Without coal, more than half of the nation’s lights go out and computers go off. Without coal miners, there is no coal," said Daniel J. Kane, the UMWA's international secretary-treasurer. "Leaving America’s coal miners out of contingency planning for a potential nationwide influenza pandemic makes no sense and puts America at risk. CIDRAP’s study demonstrates the clear need for miners to have priority access to antiviral drugs, vaccines, and critical services should a pandemic strike our nation. We wholeheartedly support that finding.”
CIDRAP News also asked the US Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) to comment on the report. HHS officials did not respond in time for this article. Shannon Feaster of DHS deferred the request to the Department of Energy, saying DOE oversees energy security issues.