Wyoming’s Transition from Coal to Wind – 6/20/16

Wind power is gaining traction in the biggest coal-producer of the United States, Wyoming.

The state’s geography, with its vast plains and prairies, gives Wyoming one of the highest wind power potentials of any state with the only major drawback being a lack of transmission infrastructure to connect far flung population centers. Yet, unlike other states in the Great Plains region that have seen a boom in wind farm construction as associated costs have plummeted, Wyoming has been slow to add new capacity.

In 2015, Wyoming added a relatively inconsequential amount of wind power to its grids compared with states like Oklahoma and Kansas. Wyoming’s government is partly to blame for the lackluster interest in tapping the resource since Wyoming’s regulatory environment has so far been hostile to renewables and it is the only state in the U.S. to tax wind power. Solar City’s exodus from Nevada following some unfavorable legislative changes is good example of how quickly investment can dry up if developers see an unfriendly government is in charge.

by state

But if uncertainty about future regulation can kill investment in renewables, the same type of uncertainty can kill investment even faster when it comes to coal. Seeing as it doesn’t merit it’s own label on the chart, it is clear that new coal power plants aren’t being built anymore. Be it because of the Clean Power Plan or rulings by the Supreme Court in favor of tighter regulation or the international Paris agreement on climate change or the Department of the Interior has already declared a halt on new coal mining on public lands, coal power is largely dead in the water.

Some officials and coal interests in Wyoming may have fooled themselves into thinking that stifling wind and ignoring climate change could get coal to recover, but those views are fading as coal use continues to decline. Their efforts are more likely to doom an energy rich state to importing neighboring states’ leftover electricity than revive coal. Natural gas is already surpassing coal as the main source of electricity in the U.S. and falling costs of solar and wind farms have made coal investment a losing bet in the long-run. The move from coal is painful, but inevitable so long as it has competition from cheaper, cleaner alternatives.

Although the move away from coal makes sense economically and ecologically, the thousands of coal workers who will lose their jobs are going to find little solace in a cleaner, stronger economy if they don’t have a place in it. New wind jobs will replace only a fraction of the coal jobs lost. Unfortunately, putting up turbines simply doesn’t have the same labor intensity of constantly mining, transporting, and burning fossilized carbon. That said technological advances are almost always accompanied by job loss. And the loss of farm jobs made obsolete by tractors did nothing to stop their usage in the end.

Wyoming’s Republican governor, Matt Mead, an outspoken opponent climate change related regulation has admitted to seeing economic opportunity in wind power.

“We’ve been a dig-and-ship state, exporting energy to the rest of the country,” Mr. Mead said in a recent interview. “With the advances in wind turbines, why shouldn’t we be leading that at the University of Wyoming? Why don’t we do more to bring wind manufacturing to the state?”

More and more Republican politicians and donors like the governor are supporting renewables. In fact, Philip Anschutz, a Colorado billionaire and major Republican donor, is one of the major benefactors of Wyoming’s transition to wind power. The Anschutz Corporation’s Carbon County wind farm, when completed, will be the largest wind power producer in North America, and a complementary project the TransWest Express, a 730-mile power line, is set to take Wyoming’s excess output to electricity hungry Las Vegas and California. The scale of the project is estimated to be large enough to make wind as cheap, if not cheaper, than coal power.

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