Impact of the energy transition in Wyoming

When a country or a region has been highly dependent on fossil fuel industries as a major economic driver, it is difficult to evolve into a sustainable energy approach. But, as we know, it is necessary and, really, essential if we are to achieve a low carbon transition. Coral Davenport writes a good post in the New York Times about developments in Wyoming.

 

As Wind Power Lifts Wyoming’s Fortunes, Coal Miners Are Left in the Dust

After Kullin Orcutt lost his job at the Peabody coal mine this spring, he knew what he needed to do: join the exodus. “Leave Gillette, leave the state,” he said.

Mr. Orcutt is a third-generation miner and one of 592 coal workers who have been laid off here since January. Thousands more job cuts are expected this summer.

More people will follow Mr. Orcutt. While many businesses in Gillette are struggling to stay open, a U-Haul dealer has been nearly sold out since the school year ended this month.

But 200 miles to the southwest, in Carbon County, where Wyoming’s first coal mine opened a century ago, the mood is different. The last coal mine closed a decade ago, but the county may soon be home to the largest wind farm in North America, if not the world.

“Coal is hurting, but wind power is our bright spot on the horizon,” said Cindy Wallace, the director of the Carbon County Economic Development Corporation. “Eventually, we could be the wind capital of Wyoming, the U.S., the world.”

In Wyoming, the country’s biggest coal-producing state, the energy landscape is transforming along with the nation’s, but in a state of 584,000 people, that change is happening at hyperspeed.

That transition has left men like Mr. Orcutt behind. The new positions and financial opportunities offered by wind and other new-energy industries are not replacing all the jobs going up in coal smoke.

Many of the current jobs are out of state, at wind turbine factories in Colorado and Iowa. Millions of dollars’ worth of out-of-state investments are flowing into Wyoming’s wind projects, but much of the profit will flow out of state, as well. The thousands of coal workers who will probably lose their jobs do not necessarily have the technical skills to operate wind farms. In any case, new wind jobs will number in the hundreds, not the thousands.

So when Mr. Orcutt left Gillette this spring, he did not head for the wind fields of Carbon County. Instead, he moved to Shelby, Mont., for a job at a privately run prison, leaving behind his wife and son in a groaning two-bedroom apartment that they share with Mr. Orcutt’s sister, her husband — a welder who was laid off from the coal mines — and that couple’s three children.

“It’s hard being here without them, but here I have a job,” he said. “In Gillette, those jobs are gone forever.”

The numbers bear out his decision, said Robert W. Godby, an energy economist and professor at the University of Wyoming.

“Wind energy is certainly lucrative,” he said. “That’s why so many investors are interested. But it doesn’t create nearly the economic impact of the fossil fuel industry.”

Today, about 66 percent of the electricity in the United States is produced by coal and natural gas, and just 7 percent is produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar. But market forces and government regulations are rapidly changing that picture.

A glut of inexpensive natural gas has cut into coal’s dominance of America’s power market. And President Obama’s climate change regulations, known as the Clean Power Plan, take direct aim at coal, the No. 1 cause of planet-warming greenhouse gases.

The Department of the Interior has already declared a halt on new coal mining on public lands, a move with an outsize impact on Wyoming, where a majority of mines are on federal property.

And the international Paris agreement on climate change could make the efforts to end the burning of coal a global campaign.

All of these policies are closing the remaining coal-fired plants and freezing the construction of new ones, but they also aim to aggressively increase the production of renewable power. The Clean Power Plan contains a goal for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from wind, solar and other clean sources by 2030. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to raise that amount to 33 percent by 2027.

Companies from around the world are looking to Wyoming’s wind to meet that demand.

“There’s enough wind in Wyoming to power the entire country,” said Michael Goggin, the senior director of research at the American Wind Energy Association.

Wyoming’s Republican governor, Matt Mead, is skeptical of human-caused climate change, and has been an outspoken opponent of Mr. Obama’s climate change agenda. Still, he also sees 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 an interview in his office. “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?”

Perhaps the biggest winner in Wyoming’s wind boom will be one man: Philip F. Anschutz, a Colorado billionaire and major Republican donor. His company, the Anschutz Corporation, is building the Carbon County wind farm on 200 acres owned by Mr. Anschutz and the federal government.

When completed, the site will be the largest wind power producer in North America, generating enough electricity to light a million homes — far more than Wyoming needs.

Mr. Anschutz is also planning to build the TransWest Express, a 730-mile power line that would take Wyoming’s wind energy to Las Vegas and California. Construction on both projects is expected to begin late this year or early 2017.

On a recent day, Bill Miller, the president and chief executive of the Anschutz Corporation, drove his truck through the Carbon County site’s rocky mesas, which channel near-constant wind across the green plain. The only visible inhabitants were cows, antelopes, prairie dogs and rattlesnakes.

Although wind power has traditionally been more expensive than fossil fuels, Mr. Miller said the Anschutz wind project will be large enough to make wind as cheap, if not cheaper, than coal power.

“We can produce wind power here that’s competitive with anything: coal, natural gas,” Mr. Miller said.

Mr. Miller estimates that the construction of the wind farm will create about 900 seasonal jobs over the decade it will take to build it, and about 150 full-time jobs to operate and maintain it.

In the nearby town of Rawlins, he said, a branch of Western Wyoming Community College has already started programs to train wind power technicians.

“You’ll be able to take a coal miner from Gillette — he can go to the community college here for the skills, and get a job as a wind technician,” Mr. Miller said.

But, he conceded, “Am I going to replace 800 lost coal jobs in Gillette with new wind jobs? No.”

Another big winner in the Wyoming wind boom may be a Venezuelan company, Viridis Eolia Corporation, which also plans to build a large-scale wind farm near Carbon County, one second in size in North America only to the Anschutz project.

“It’s the wave of the future,” Juan Carlos Carpio Delfino, Viridis Eolia’s chief executive, said at an energy conference at Little America, a golf resort outside Cheyenne.

“With Obama’s clean power regulations, and the signing of the Paris agreement, it creates a stable market for wind — and this is the best wind in North America.”

That remains cold comfort to Wyoming’s coal community. Mr. Godby estimates that in the coming years, Wyoming could lose up to 10,000 jobs related to the coal industry.

Last month, officials from the Interior Department held a public hearing in Casper to gather input on the current halt on new coal mining on the state’s public lands.

During the meeting, Jillian Balow, the Wyoming superintendent of public instruction, spoke before a crowd of hundreds, her voice cracking.

“We have reached the point where the restrictions and regulations for the industry are past our ability to adapt,” she said. “It has put thousands of hard-working people out of work and is devastating families.”

“Give us a chance,” she pleaded.

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