Anyone who has been told to dig a hole then fill it up would appreciate the process of feeding a coal burning power plant. While conveyor belts do a lot of the work, moving and packing mountains of coal at the James River Power Station in Springfield, Missouri, also falls on two loaders. For the first time in the station's history, one of those loaders is a Volvo.
The trainload of coal has been waiting to be unloaded most of the night. When the loader operators' shift begins in the dark at 5 a.m. in April, bottom-dumping cars begin off-loading tons of coal. Conveyor belts carry the fuel up and pour it out above two different hoppers, adding to the black mountains already there. As the coal is fed into the hoppers, the top of the mound begins to shift, creating a cavity. Loader operators build a ramp up the hill so they can push the surrounding coal over the hopper.
When not doing that, loaders pack surplus coal into huge hills. Coal exposed to air will eventually begin to burn spontaneously. Pushing it into these mounds and packing it down by driving over it deprives the coal of oxygen that leads to smoldering and fires. While not dangerous, per se, it's wasteful, and waste is not tolerated at James River.
For most of the more than 50 years of operation, James River used large Caterpillar loaders to move the coal. That changed when Volvo came out with the L350F. It is the biggest Volvo loader made and designed specially for the large-loader market. When the need rose for the plant to take bids on a new loader, Volvo could compete with the big boys. It fell to Tim Turner, supervisor — maintenance, to monitor the bidding process.
"It's all about price," Turner makes clear. As a city utility, the request for bids would be subject to close scrutiny. Turner clarified that the winning bid would be "the low bid or the best bid." Which is usually, but not always, the same.
In comes Jerry Freitag, new territory manager for The G.W. Van Keppel Company. Van Keppel as been an equipment distributor for the construction, aggregate and material handling industries since 1926. Van Keppel has operations in Kansas, Missouri, Oklahoma, and Texas. They handle several brands of new and used construction equipment, including Volvo, Terex, Hitachi, Kawasaki, and Kobelco. They also rent equipment.
"We are in the middle." Mr. Van Keppel made this statement in 1951. His position was that as an equipment distributor, his company functioned as the middleman between the manufacturers and end users of equipment.
Freitag came to the Springfield operation about a year ago, after working in the Van Keppel Oklahoma market. Right off, he started on the James River loader bid, now that Volvo had a model that could compete. For a month, the whole office worked on the bid.
"Van Keppel had been trying to get into the power station," he explained. "I didn't want to keep submitting bids for the next few years to get in. I was going to do it right the first time."
He was aware that he'd still be going against bigger, more powerful loaders. The Volvo could claim quickness, but his real ace-in-the-hole was the significant fuel efficiency of the L350F. (See Fuel Cost Comparison Tool.) He was aided in that by the steady rise in diesel fuel prices. He had one more thing going for him: He'd recently hired a CAT service manager who knew the competition intimately.
The team effort produced a bid "so full of cold hard facts that it needed a 1-1/2-inch binder," Freitag said, smiling. "The others fit easily into a manila envelope." Not surprisingly, Van Keppel won the bid. Tim Turner noted that future bids would include a fuel efficiency breakdown requirement.
Does the L350F measure up? Shane Todd, one of the two full-time operators, says it does. He's especially fond of the cab comforts.
"It's not as powerful as the CAT, but it's nimble. And it has a lot more features," he remarked. "It's quiet and has electric controls. The joystick control steering takes some getting use to, but you're not working yourself as hard." When you're operating it over a 12-hour shift, that's important.
Tim Turner says the "fuel savings were all they were looking for." He figures that in the months since they purchased the Volvo, they've already saved thousands of dollars in fuel. Seeing as how they burned — and moved much of — 1,017,010 tons of coal in 2007 to produce 1,649,107 megawatts of power, annual savings should be substantial.
In 2010, Springfield will complete another power station. Not too long before that, the request for loader bids will doubtlessly go out. Freitag and the Van Keppel team will probably need a bigger binder.