March 2014

Illuminating Experience 235 Feet Underground

Before taking the underground coal mine tour, my group first experienced a 45-minute safety briefing. We were given instructions on how to respond to an emergency situation and, if trapped underneath, what we should expect and do. Without a doubt, safety is the first priority.

After our safety briefing, we loaded in a multi-person mine vehicle (all underground vehicles are less than seven feet tall, which is about the underground mine’s working height or roof). A second vehicle followed us in case someone felt uncomfortable and wanted to exit the mine. We entered the mouth of the mine and traveled down about 1,650 feet at an eight percent grade. Once we leveled off, we traveled another 7,500 feet underground. Overall, we were approximately 235 feet underground and nearly two miles inside the coal mine.

We were able to get an up-close look at a rotating cutting head as it cut the coal seam. The coal was then loaded into a transport vehicle and taken to a conveyor. It was a clean operation. It wasn’t loud. In fact, we didn’t need ear plugs or dust masks. The men and women who worked underground were professional and focused. On average, they mine about 22,000 tons of coal per day.

My visit inside the coal mine was surprisingly clean and dust-free. Afterwards, I had some residue on my safety jacket, but it was from me putting small pieces of coal and shale into my pockets (with permission).

I took the opportunity to go underground and see how coal is mined and used to generate electricity. I am not a technical wizard or engineer, but seeing first-hand how things work is illuminating.

My coal mine visit took place across the Mississippi River in Washington County, Illinois, at the Prairie State Energy Campus. The facility generates 1600 megawatts (MWs) of power and is 95-percent owned by eight non-profit utilities (including electric co-ops) that provide clean, reliable and affordable base-load power to 2.5 million families every day.

The coal used to power Prairie State is derived from an adjacent underground mine, where nearly seven million tons of coal are mined annually. The coal travels on conveyors from the coal field across the road to the power plant.

All said, the Prairie State Energy Campus contributes $785 million in economic activity annually. The plant and coal mine drives jobs and supports schools. It is an economic backbone to the area. More importantly, the coal keeps the lights on – affordably – for thousands of homes, farms and businesses.

As demonstrated by cold snaps just this winter, natural gas and propane prices are volatile and spike even during shorter-term weather events. This has an immediate adverse effect on electric bills. However, coal, and its stable price, is a long-term proven hedge against natural gas volatility. Access to clean coal is critical if we are to continue to provide affordable electricity for our members.

When we live paycheck to paycheck, it is hard to see years down the road. However, we encourage you to take action today by clicking on action.coop to stop the EPA from raising electric rates through its proposal to regulate greenhouse gas emissions at new power plants. The big fear is the proposed rules will eventually apply to existing coal-fired power plants. Therefore, it will eventually apply to your monthly electric bill.

Thank you to the thousands of co-op members who have taken action. We need all members to join the movement. Visit action.coop or stop by our Bloomfield or Sikeston office to take action.

Be smart. Act safe.

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