Storm clouds build behind wind turbines north of Medicine Bow, even as sunlight pours into the photographer’s frame. (Brian Harrington/BHP Imaging)

As the rest of the West rushes to meet increasingly ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions, one state is moving in exactly the opposite direction. It’s Wyoming, which even wants to take on the coal-fired generation that states such as Oregon and Washington are abandoning. 

Wyoming residents and businesses enjoy among the lowest rates for electricity because most of the state’s power comes from burning coal, but those cost dynamics are changing quickly, making coal a liability.

Recently, a legislative committee advanced a bill to raise taxes on wind energy while also signaling distaste for rooftop solar and other forms of customer-generated electricity. It seems a perplexing stance in the context of other states in the West that are retiring coal-fired power plants at a rapid clip. 

But Wyoming leaders worry little about the devastation in the West wrought by climate change, and they criticize PacifiCorp, which proposes to retire several coal-fired units ahead of schedule, for potentially harming Wyoming towns such as Kemmerer, Rock Springs and Glenrock.

Unlike Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, Wyoming has never developed a plan to transition beyond coal. Instead, state leaders are trying to force utilities to keep aging coal plants in Wyoming burning. The state is also spending taxpayer dollars in a stealth effort to lobby against coal-plant closures outside its borders, in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and other states.

Meanwhile, Wyoming is negotiating to take on the coal power within PacifiCorp’s operating region that other Western states are abandoning. That means Wyoming ratepayers — or a combination of customers in Wyoming and other states that might opt for more coal — would take on a larger coal portfolio. This could be risky financially, as the coal generation comes from older power plants, some beyond 40 and 50 years old. 

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Somehow, lawmakers have convinced themselves that the West’s rush to renewables is foolish and will result in a knock on the door from other states. Then Wyoming could say, “I told you so” to these states that plead for coal-fired power after wind and solar fail to meet spikes in demand.

“Reliability is a big concern for customers,” said Bryce Freeman, Wyoming’s consumer advocate administrator in testimony before a legislative committee last fall. “The cheapest electricity in the world is no good if it doesn’t work when customers need it, and that’s exactly what’s happened in California.” 

Well, not exactly. There were forced rolling blackouts in California last summer, but the cause was more operational shortcomings. A report by the California Independent System Operator found that power officials failed to anticipate and contract for enough backup power while also mistakenly keeping offline some of its backup from natural gas.

It seems a shame that the state isn’t onboard with its Western neighbors to help decarbonize the grid. “The more people and states that participate, the easier it is to achieve any emissions goal,” said Jonathan Koomey, energy and climate researcher at University of California, Berkeley. “If you have more geographic regions contributing to the grid, it makes it easier to reduce emissions.”

Anybody who has traveled the I-80 corridor across southern Wyoming knows that the state has an incredible wind resource. It even blows in the evening when customers in California need it most. There’s now a glut of potential Wyoming wind energy proposals from developers that would produce more than 5,000 megawatts with a capital investment of nearly $10 billion. It’s worth noting that no other industry is contemplating such an investment in Wyoming, now in the throes of a historic budget crisis. Financial backers, though, are nervous, warning that the threat of higher state taxes on wind might make Wyoming non-competitive. 

When the state Legislature took comment from close to 100 people about the state’s coal-only agenda last month, most residents pleaded with lawmakers not to block commercial wind power development. Lawmakers weren’t swayed.

The wind blows and the sun shines in other parts of the West, too, and the burgeoning renewable market might just blow past Wyoming. Wyoming’s stubborn reluctance won’t stop other Western states from leaving coal — and perhaps the Cowboy State — in the past.

This piece was originally published by Writers on the Range, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about Western issues, and reprinted here with permission.

Dustin Bleizeffer is a Report for America Corps member covering energy and climate at WyoFile. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 25 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Didn’t Wyoming miss out on wind development around 2006 also because they wanted to tax a burgeoning industry the same way they taxed oil,gas and coal? I believe numerous companies simply went to other states where the incentives were better. I feel like Wyoming is doing the same thing again except they will really miss out this time because wind and solar are no longer burgeoning. They can actually stand on their own now to provide jobs and Tex revenue. Especially when you have world class wind and so many days of sun per year. Energy is a mix and for quite some time coal and gas will be needed for stability but its shifting faster than ever to more renewables.

  2. Dustin,
    Great piece. No doubt that Wyoming is turning a mean and blind eye toward renewable energy. My son works in the wind industry in the state. And unlike the oil patch, and the coal mining industry, his field has seen unprecedented growth. He makes a good wage, has good benefits, and can see a future with much opportunity.

    The Republican good old boy cabal that runs the state are shunning what will soon be the US energy base load. The movement toward wind and solar is neither a conservative or liberal idea. Wind and solar are progressive business investments with the profitability metrics to prove them out. And, clean energy will move us in the right direction with regards to carbon reduction and mitigating climate change.

    Historically, energy choices were never born out by resource depletion. The supply of whales and whale oil did not dictate our switch to petroleum based oil, just as the supply of coal will not dictate our current movement toward renewable energy. Economics always paves the way for necessary changes here. Coal is becoming the high cost energy choice. Does the Wyoming Legislature really want to hang high energy costs on Wyoming residents who are reeling from what may be long term statewide economic contraction? Lets leave coal in the ground.

    Lets enhance state revenue by making serious efforts to see that Wyoming becomes a renewable energy powerhouse. On a humorous note, it would generate a whole lot more revenue than legalizing pot or increasing the liquor and beer tax.

  3. Yep, time to get on-board and start making that wind power profitable for Wyoming! The Democrats will be in office soon! Let’s get them to pass an education bill that will retrain our coal workers and keep them working.

    We need to get out in front of this before it runs us over!

  4. From what I understand, our legislators are not opposed to wind energy. We have wind farms already, so that is self evident.
    As energy companies make plans to build more wind farms in Wyoming, our legislators are paying attention and saying wait a minute: we have a need for revenue and wind might help.
    They are trying to make sure we get the most revenue possible over the short and long terms for the impact that the wind farms have and will have for years to come. When you sell something you don’t have to sell to the lowest bidder. What’s the most they will pay and is the current rate fair? I believe this is a responsible approach to valuation of our wind assets and I congratulate our legislators for their efforts. Maybe there are some who are inclined toward coal industry protectionism as suggested but I believe I see our legislators proceeding with the best interest of all of Wyoming in mind when it comes to wind energy.

  5. We west coasters will never approve port facilities so Wyoming can continue selling that coal. Fortunes and families were made with the use of coal over the past 200 years, but the time has come to keep it in the ground. There have been some small train derailments involving coal and ND oil in the Columbia River Gorge over the past couple years. Relatively a good thing? Yes, because it has showed the people of Oregon and Washington what to expect if Wyoming starts mass shipments (6-8 trains daily) of coal and ND crude were ever approved. Yes some comes down daily now, but we will not allow more! I love Wyoming but if you want to ship coal, start landing them Boeing 737s in Casper, load them with coal, and send them to China for a while. Not a good idea either, but neither is continuing with coal burning. BS

  6. Thanks for this eye-opener, which shows, yet again, that my Home State Legislators are wearing Blinders, regarding Wyoming Coal’s inevitable demise. Saddle up, people and evolve—Renewables will succeed!