Last month I suggested that an “all-of-the-above” strategy for Wyoming’s energy economic development would lead us nowhere; if we try to do everything, we’ll accomplish nothing. 

Opinion

Focus is the key to success, and the state has an enormous opportunity with utility-scale solar projects, particularly in our struggling coal communities. 

We have considerable land and skilled labor in places that could prove ideal for massive solar projects. To put this into perspective, the largest utility-scale project thus far in the U.S. is in northern Texas. Across 18,000 acres, the Sampson Solar Energy Project will produce enough energy to power 300,000 homes. More importantly, that project will create 600 jobs over the three-year construction phase. And 18,000 acres may seem like a lot of land, until one considers that it’s only about one-third the size of a typical Wyoming coal mine. 

It’s also important to recognize that Campbell County is relatively remote and will have a difficult time attracting non-coal industries to make up for lost jobs. While solar won’t provide the type of long-term jobs that coal mining has, over the next five to 10 years, these large construction projects could offer jobs to hundreds of skilled workers and provide a desperately needed economic bridge for the community.

The county’s retiring mines are ideally suited for massive solar projects. Consider that constructing a solar farm involves large-scale grading of the land, something that is done anyway as operators retire and reclaim mines. With solar projects, teams of skilled electricians and construction workers are required to construct the frames, install the solar panels and build a powerplant to prepare the energy for transmission. Our greatest state asset is not the coal under the ground, but the thousands of skilled workers displaced as mines and operations close down.

Based on what assets electric utilities are retiring, coal is on an inescapable decline. In contrast, the fundamentals of solar are all going in the right direction. The construction cost of utility-scale projects has dropped by nearly 80% in just the last 10 years. During roughly that same time, the cost of storing electricity has dropped by 70%. Just as important, solar has strong political and public tailwinds. Two-thirds of Americans want the federal government to do more to reduce the effects of climate change, and three-quarters of our country want to see the country prioritize renewables over fossil fuels. 

We need to be more like Texas, where I began my career in the energy industry at the worst possible time. Oil prices had plummeted from $85 a barrel to $35, and it seemed everyone was either bankrupt or knew someone who was. This was the turning point for the state and its leadership. They learned their lesson and aggressively diversified their economy – which included recognizing that they had a lot of land, wind, skilled labor and sunshine.

Contrast that with Wyoming, where some state legislators have tried to ban utility-scale solar projects under the absurd belief that doing so will “save coal.” That attitude has allowed states like Texas to laugh at us all the way to the bank.

Texans didn’t view renewables as a threat to their core oil and gas and coal industries, but instead as another way to create jobs and increase their tax base. With this mindset, Texas is likely to move into the No. 1 position for solar within the next five years. Talk about seizing opportunity — in only four years Texas will have expanded from 2 gigawatts of utility scale solar capacity to 15 gigawatts.

Admittedly, our sunshine is not as potent as states closer to the equator. But that disadvantage is less striking in the summer months when air conditioners run long and hard during the day. Furthermore, as the cost of solar continues to plunge, this disadvantage drops. North Carolina, for example, has created a solar boom with even less solar resource than Wyoming. 

I’ve seen first-hand what happens to coal communities after the mines close. When the country’s demand for anthracite coal went away, so did the mines and the neighborhoods near my grandfather’s coal mines in Appalachia. I went to visit those communities, and all I found were outlines of once-vibrant small towns along the coal seams of the Appalachian Valley. That doesn’t need to happen to Gillette or Kemmerer. But to avoid that fate, we need a modern battle plan, and that strategy begins with finding immediate work for the families that have been the backbone of these communities.

Dave Dodson

Dave Dodson lives in Wyoming and is a former CEO and professor at Stanford University. He was a Wyoming Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. Read more from his archive at davedodson.com/news.

Join the Conversation

15 Comments

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

  1. As coal, gas and oil, and cattle ranching inevitably decline in Wyoming wind and solar continue the inevitable growth. Good for the state in every way.

  2. Spot on Dave and thx for the column. The history of “company towns” is bleak when the product they produce is no longer in demand UNLESS they are forward looking enough to move in other directions. I guess the next question is, what are your thoughts on strategy for getting an ostrich-like legislature and local communities onboard with this? Because right now, both of those groups are doubling and tripling down due to fear of change (and a tax system that incentives doubling down).

  3. Replacing utility scale Fossil Fuel energy with utility scale Solar and/or Wind energy is ignoring the 200 ton dinosaur in the room. It does not matter what the source of the electrical generation is if you are feeding it to a Soviet-style collective grid run by bureaucrats and regulated utility companies. Giant transnational grids , and the Texas intrastate grid, are dinosaurs.
    Wyoming does not need to embrace the Soviet Western Power Grid, and we definitely should not embrace the Texas /Enron model of electrical distribution for profit.

    The better longterm solution is to steer towards more local generation and distribution… neighborhood and subdivision scale grids , or decoupled altogether at the per building or per residence unit. Generation and storage technology are improving daily and the costs dropping for rooftop solar , hydrogen , and kinetics on the front end and lithium battery blocks and other storage banks on the back end. I expect breakthroughs in various battery technologies and novel storage methods to be truly surprising , coming sooner rather than later. The handwriting is on the PowerWall for conventional energy and Soviet power grids.

    The greater obstacle to all that comes in altering the fossil fuel mindset of of the Soviet Republic of Wyoming , from the statehouse down to the courthouse and city halls. I have personally gone before the Cody City Council on a few occasions to plead a two pronges case for weaning the municipal power system away from the boilers of the Laramie River and Dry Fork coal plants on the one hand, and allow Net Metering on the other. The City of Cody is the monopolistic sole provider of my electricity on an enterpise pass thru markup system beholden to multistate utility companies that burn coal. When I say to the City fathers we should do our part to decrease coal generation and incentivize rooftop solar , I get run out of the room . My experience is not unique.

    I conclude the technology for newer greener alternative energy and smart distribution of it will arrive in Wyoming long before the wisdom to implement it . Those living fossil carbonaceous dinosaurs have gawdawful long lifespans.

  4. I agree that WY needs more than wind towers, and solar is a great option. What I never see is hydro power as an alternative. WY has many great rivers, streams that run year round, why not include hydropower in our over all planning?

  5. Utility scale wind and solar disrupt our landscape and views. The tranquility of our open spaces is violated.
    A better solution is distributed solar on rooftops. Current technology for storage and inverters allows feedback into the grid as needed to avoid disrupting the grid balance. It also avoids some major infrastructure development. Win-win.

  6. No single action will save the thousands of people who jobs are at peril of disappearing because coal is a fuel that the planet can no longer afford to use. But is they insist we will loose out in the long run because more progressive thinkers other places will have already done it. I’m sure that we could produce geo thermal, search for the rare earths needed to keep the development of EV and other energy related products going. Afghanistan is now controlled by the Taliban and the Chinese already have a extensive footprint established in mining and processing these rare elements that could further limit our ability to obtain these materials if we don’t start today to inventory and develop the infrastructure Ed to produce these elements and materials

  7. At this very moment, Innovative Solar Systems is advertising in Texas and Montana (and perhaps Wyoming) for 300 plus acres of clean farm or pasture land to lease for solar power production. The land must be adjacent to 115 to 345 Kv transmission lines and near a maintained road. Potential income of $800-$1200 per acre per year. I bet some reclaimed mine sites would fit the bill…..Wyoming may be a little cold in the winter but we have a lot of sunny days.

  8. Could we redirect some of the passion and energy of this far right obsession to the efforts of building another sector of our energy base?
    Now that could make sense.