As Coal Stumbles, Wind Power Takes Off in Wyoming

July 12, 2017 | 12:38 pm
Photo: Flickr, Wyoming_Jackrabbit
Jeff Deyette
Director of State Policy and Analysis

After several years of mostly sitting on the sidelines, Wyoming is re-entering the wind power race in a big way. Rocky Mountain Power recently announced plans to invest $3.5 billion in new wind and transmission over the next three years. This development—combined with the long-awaited start of construction on what could be the nation’s largest wind project—will put Wyoming among the wind power leaders in the region. That’s welcome news for a state economy looking to rebound from the effects of the declining coal industry.

Capitalizing on untapped potential

Wyoming has some of the best wind resources in the country. The state ranks fifth nationally in total technical potential, but no other state has stronger Class 6 and 7 wind resources (considered the best of the best). And yet, wind development has remained largely stagnant in Wyoming since 2010.

In the last seven years, just one 80-megawatt wind project came online in Wyoming as the wind industry boomed elsewhere—more than doubling the installed US wind capacity to 84,000 megawatts.

Fortunately, it appears that Wyoming is ready to once again join the wind power bonanza, bringing a much-needed economic boost along with it. On June 29th, Rocky Mountain Power—Wyoming largest power provider—filed a request with regulators for approval to make major new investments in wind power and transmission. The plan includes upgrading the company’s existing wind turbines and adding up to 1,100 MWs of new wind projects by 2020, nearly doubling the state’s current wind capacity.

In addition to the $3.5 billion in new investments, Rocky Mountain Power estimates that the plan will support up to 1,600 construction jobs and generate as much as $15 million annually in wind and property tax revenues (on top of the $120 million in construction-related tax revenue) to help support vital public services. What’s more—thanks to the economic competitiveness of wind power—these investments will save consumers money, according to the utility.

Rocky Mountain Power isn’t the only company making a big investment in Wyoming’s rich wind resources. After more than a decade in development, the Power Company of Wyoming (PCW) has begun initial construction on the first of the two-phase Chokecherry and Sierra Madre wind project, which will ultimately add 3,000 MW of wind capacity in Carbon County. The $5 billion project expects to support 114 permanent jobs when completed, and hundreds more during the 3-year construction period. PCW also projects that over the first 20 years of operation, the massive project will spur about $780 million in total tax revenues for local and state coffers.

Diversifying Wyoming’s economy with wind

When completed, these two new wind investments will catapult Wyoming to the upper tier of leaders in wind development in the west and nationally. And combined with Wyoming’s existing wind capacity, the total annual output from all wind projects could supply nearly all of Wyoming’s electricity needs, if all the generation was consumed in state. That’s not likely to happen though, as much of the generation from the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project is expected to be exported to other western states with much greater energy demands.

Still, the wind industry is now riding a major new wave of clean energy momentum in a state better known for its coal production.

Coal mining is a major contributor to Wyoming’s economy, as more than 40 percent of all coal produced in the US comes from the state’s Powder River Basin. But coal production has fallen in recent years as more and more coal plants retire and the nation transitions to cleaner, more affordable sources of power. In 2016, Wyoming coal production dropped by 20 percent compared with the previous year, hitting a nearly 20-year low. That resulted in hundreds of layoffs and confounded the state’s efforts to climb out of a long-term economic slump.  And while production has rebounded some this year, many analysts project the slide to continue over the long-term.

Of course, Wyoming’s recent wind power investments and their substantial benefits alone can’t replace all its losses from the coal industry’s decline. But a growing wind industry can offset some of the damage and play an important role in diversifying Wyoming’s fossil-fuel dependent economy. In fact, Goldwind Americas, the US affiliate of a large Chinese wind turbine manufacturer, recently launched a free training program to unemployed coal miners in Wyoming who want to become wind turbine technicians.

A growing wind industry can also provide a whole new export market for the state as more and more utilities, corporations, institutions and individual consumers throughout the west want access to a clean, affordable, reliable and carbon-free power supply.

Sustaining the momentum

As the wind industry tries to build on its gains in Wyoming, what’s not clear today is whether the state legislature will help foster more growth or stand in the way. In the past year, clean energy opponents in the Wyoming legislature have made several attempts to stymie development, including by significantly increasing an existing modest tax on wind production (Wyoming is the only state in the country that taxes wind production) and penalizing utilities that supply wind and solar to Wyoming consumers. Ultimately, wiser minds prevailed and these efforts were soundly defeated.

That’s good news for all residents of Wyoming. Wind power has the potential to boost the economy and provide consumers with clean and affordable power. Now that the wind industry has returned to Wyoming, the state should do everything it can to keep it there.