More than 250 Laramie residents gathered to participate in the Global Climate Strike on Sept. 20, 2019. Mike Selmer, leader of the Wyoming Climate Activists, speaks to the crowd. (Rob Joyce)

Several communities across the state are breaking with state policy and forging their own plans to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Earlier this year, the Laramie City Council signed a proclamation committing to achieving carbon neutrality by 2050. The international tourist destination of Jackson aims to be carbon neutral by 2030. In Sheridan, a new “Renewable Energy Assessment” states the town must “showcase a willingness to adapt to changing realities and markets.”

In October, Lander Mayor Monte Richardson signed a proclamation that acknowledges “the adverse impacts of climate change and the risk it poses to the Lander Community.” The proclamation delineated Richardson’s support of a goal to “reduce greenhouse gas emissions to enhance community resilience, quality of life and economic viability for current and future generations.”

These Wyoming towns are in the company of a growing number of U.S. cities resolving to cut greenhouse gas emissions. At least 150 have committed to net-zero emissions in coming years. Yet the voluntary efforts in Wyoming — the nation’s top coal producer and among the top in oil and natural gas — stand in contrast to state-level policies which might even inhibit communities attempting to move beyond a boom-and-bust fossil-fuel economy.

Ariel Greene, one of the citizen organizers and steering committee members for the Lander Climate Action Network, holds a mayoral proclamation about climate change on Oct. 13, 2020.
(provided/Lander Climate Action Network)

Legislative actions in recent years include a suite of new laws intended to keep coal-fired power plants in the state burning, while other proposals would raise taxes on commercial scale wind energy and dissuade rooftop solar. State policymakers say they will also consider taking on the coal-fired power that other western states are abandoning.

“One of the ideas that’s come up is that since Washington and Oregon decided they’re not going to take any output from coal plants after a certain date, maybe other states — Wyoming, Utah and Idaho — could subscribe to the output of those plants and use them to serve loads in their individual states,” Wyoming Office of Consumer Advocate Administrator Bryce Freeman said. 

While there’s plenty of support in towns like Lander, Sheridan, Laramie and even in Jackson for these state-level actions, there’s also a growing sense that the state — in the midst of a historic economic crisis — isn’t coming to the rescue.

“Communities across Wyoming are waking up to the fact that our fossil fuel energy is no longer going to pay the way,” renewable energy advocate and community organizer Monika Leininger said.

The climate change discussion tends to be less partisan at the local level, even in fossil fuel-dependent Wyoming, said Leininger, an organizer for the Sheridan-based landowner group Powder River Basin Resource Council. That’s because the efforts are coupled with the goal of saving taxpayer dollars by seeking energy efficiencies, she said. 

Shifting toward more renewable sources of energy to diversify a local economy, according to Leininger, also speaks to Wyoming’s independent, bootstrapping culture. Just as state and regional partnerships lead U.S. climate action in the absence of a national climate and energy policy, Leininger said she sees a growing resolve among Wyoming communities to take actions independent of state policies and politics.

“These communities are just trying to move on,” she said. “They’re listening to markets, they’re seeing what attracts people, they’re seeing what’s working in other states and for other cities to attract business and save money.”

Towns struggle, state holds purse-strings

Wyoming consumes more energy per capita than any other state, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. That distinction, however, is owed to its industrial and mineral extraction industries; it takes a lot of electricity to mine coal and produce and process oil and natural gas. 

Most of the electricity consumed in Wyoming comes from burning coal. The state’s per-capita greenhouse gas emissions, according to a U.S. Bureau of Land Management assessment, are more than four times the national average — again owing to its fossil fuel industries and low population. 

However, energy consumption remains a top expenditure for local governments — to heat and cool buildings, to treat sewage and power vehicle fleets. Today, towns and counties in Wyoming are slashing budgets in tandem with the state, which still faces a biennium deficit of about $300 million even after outlining more than $500 million in proposed cuts. In Campbell County, for instance, commissioners expect to trim the county budget by 15-25%.

Laramie’s Downtown Clinic’s 25-panel solar array offsets 98% of the clinic’s energy usage. The project also includes Wyoming’s first Blue Sky battery storage system, which will keep medical supplies, such as vaccines, properly stored during an emergency. A $33,675 grant from the Rocky Mountain Power Blue Sky Program made it possible. (provided/Powder River Basin Resource Council)

“Everybody is looking to find efficiencies where they can,” Wyoming Association of Municipalities member services manager Justin Schilling said. “[Municipalities are] trying to maintain jobs, but take a hard look at services. It’s not catastrophic yet, but it’s headed that way.”

Finding efficiencies is essential for local governments, Schilling said, because state law restricts how counties and towns can tax themselves and otherwise raise funds — a fixture of Wyoming policy that local governments continually push against. Coupled with those limitations, local governments rely heavily on “direct distribution” payments mostly made up of mineral-extraction revenues that the legislature doles out on a biannual basis.

Those distributions totaled more than $160 million — for all local governments — just five years ago. The most recent distribution contracted to $105 million. Counties and towns expect the payments will continue to shrink drastically as the legislature imposes budget cuts and rejects new tax measures. The body’s long-standing anti-tax attitude was reaffirmed in this year’s elections.

Wyoming municipalities, Schilling said, feel captive to the purse-string powers and whims of the legislature. He said he’s not surprised that cities and counties are looking inward to become more self-reliant.

That sense is prominently on display in Albany County and the city of Laramie, Albany County Commissioner Pete Gosar said. Local officials and residents alike, Gosar said, feel like they’re on their own to adapt to new market and cultural realities.

Laramie officials and project partners break ground on a new solar array at the Laramie Ice and Event Center Oct. 13, 2020. Rocky Mountain Power, which helps provide community renewable energy projects to nonprofit organizations and public services, helped finance the project. (Ed Koncel)

“Many of these counties and cities rely on the state to fill the deficits in their budgets,” Gosar said. “This is an opportunity to try to diversify and move in a direction where there are other sources of income for cities and counties.”

The state’s cuts to direct distribution payments in 2019 included a loss of nearly $200,000 to the city of Laramie, according to city councilman Brian Harrington.

“So these [energy cost savings efforts] are crucial,” Harrington said. “We need to be doing everything we can to try to offset our own costs so that when the state continues to make cuts we can say we’ve been preparing.”

Seeds of climate and renewable-energy action

Resolutions to measure emissions and to achieve a net-zero emissions target by 2050 have enjoyed unanimous support by the Laramie City Council, Harrington said. The city’s resolve, along with buy-in by the Albany County Commission, comes after several years of grassroots support and organizing among interested residents. The movement coalesced into the Alliance for Renewable Energy of Laramie, which formed in 2018 and began working cooperatively with city officials in 2019.

Today, the alliance and local officials, along with others, share data and action proposals via an environmental advisory committee. They’re also tapping talent and resources at the University of Wyoming; a group of UW students is volunteering to help measure baseline emissions of local government operations to help identify top cost-saving efforts. 

A Laramie Police Department vehicle parked near the station in December 2020. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

Energy savings programs offered by the local utility are often the natural place for a community to start. Laramie and Albany County are served by Rocky Mountain Power. The Laramie Regional Airport received a grant from RMP’s Blue Sky program to add solar panels at two of its facilities. The city tapped the same RMP program to install solar panels to its event center and recreation center. 

One prime emissions source within city government is idling police cruisers, Harrington said. Officers essentially use cruisers as a mobile office for the duration of their shift. He said that, based on input from the citizens’ alliance, the city is now looking into battery packs that will allow officers to reduce idling.

“The systems will pay for themselves within just a few years,” Harrington said.

Local officials are also reaching out to other Wyoming communities to explore whether they might jointly invest in new solar energy projects.

“It all began just by folks getting together and meeting and realizing city council members will listen if there’s a structure in place,” Leininger said. “The city staff is ready to move to renewable energy to help them balance budgets and not have to remove people from their payrolls.”

It might come as no surprise that Jackson was the first Wyoming town to invoke climate change in a community-driven effort to reduce its own greenhouse gas emissions. Jackson’s prosperity is rooted in large part on a pristine peaks-to-plains landscape prone to a warming climate. Making strides to combat climate change is a clear investment in Jackson’s economy, proponents say.

In 2007, the city of Jackson and Teton County collaborated to come up with a “10 by 10” goal: reduce electrical consumption and fossil fuel consumption, each by 10%, by 2010. The local governments hit the mark, off by only a few months. In 2010, voters approved a local excise tax of $3.8 million to invest in a suite of energy saving efforts and to begin adding renewable sources of energy — an investment that local leaders say has already paid for itself.

Today, a public-private partnership between Jackson, Teton County and Energy Conservation Works — a collaboration that dates back to the mid-2000s — has helped cut energy use to save an estimated $1.3 million annually primarily among local government expenditures, according to Energy Conservation Works Executive Director Phil Cameron.

“That doesn’t even capture everything,” Cameron said. “That’s a conservative figure because it’s hard to quantify kilowatts never demanded.”

Among the highlights of the community’s renewable energy efforts is the largest solar array in the state, located at the local sewage treatment plant. It generates approximately 750,000 kilowatt hours per year.

“When I think about it,” Cameron said, “there’s a lot more we can do within the means we already have; there’s still more homes and businesses we can enroll in energy efficiency efforts, and another goal is to renew our residential [energy efficiency] loan program.”

Lander sees hope in carbon-cutting efforts

The dual goal of economic sustainability and landscapes and ecosystem-functionality preservation resonates in Lander. The Lander Climate Action Network formed after a series of climate discussions earlier this year to explore the community’s risks in a changing climate as well as money-saving opportunities in addressing it. 

Taking on the threat of climate change while seeking energy savings has earned buy-in from a cross-section of residents, according to Lander Climate Action Network organizer Kara Colovich. The efforts so far have bypassed partisan inhibitions toward climate action that often steer policy at the Wyoming Legislature.

Lander Climate Action Network members Ariel Greene, Adam Keifenheim, and Katie Orem introduce their organization and vision to the Lander City Council in September 2020. (provided/Lander Climate Action Network)

“It’s not people going out there with picket signs and big banners outside City Hall,” Colovich said. “It’s a collaborative process with the local government here.” 

Colovich, a Lander native who moved away from Wyoming to study sustainability models for communities and organizations, moved back to Lander to help lead the National Outdoor Leadership School’s sustainability efforts. She now works at Lander-based Creative Energies, a regional solar installation company. 

Because of broad buy-in from the community, Lander Climate Action Network quickly earned a cooperative partnership with the city council, Colovich said.

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The city was already scrounging to find energy and budget savings, taking advantage of Rocky Mountain Power’s Wattsmart Business program and finding savings by switching to LED lighting. It received a $25,000 grant via the Wyoming Business Council to upgrade to more energy-efficient air conditioning and heating at Lander’s senior center, saving an estimated $200 to $300 per month, according to Lander Assistant Mayor RaJean Strube Fossen. 

Joining forces with LCAN seemed a natural next step, and essential to building a long-term climate and energy roadmap for the future, Strube Fossen said.

“With the budget shortfalls that every municipality is going to face, these efforts focus on energy efficiency to save the city money,” Colovich said. “Our organization is volunteer-based, so if the city can rely on staff that they don’t have to pay to come up with an outline for how they can save money through energy efficiency measures, I think that is a big plus to the city.”

The city has asked LCAN to provide recommendations; high on the list is a complete assessment of the city’s energy use and greenhouse gas footprint. Lander’s municipal waste treatment plant is a prime target for energy savings, Strube Fossen said. So far, the city hasn’t tapped new sources of renewable energy, but that’s a topic that the public-private partnership will explore.

“For a city government, renewable energy is beneficial because it saves public tax dollars,” Strube Fossen said. “Anywhere we can reduce our consumption of power, we’re also reducing dollars spent. And those savings are long term.”

CORRECTION: This story has been updated to reflect that the city of Laramie has already received grant support from Rocky Mountain Power’s Blue Sky program to install solar panels at its event center and recreation center. -Ed.

Dustin Bleizeffer

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 22 years as a statewide reporter and editor primarily...

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  1. Is coal no longer important to Wyoming’s economy? New technologies have been developed. Coal an be combusted and put into the atmosphere less CO2 than what comes out of a natural gas power plant.
    In coal ash is lithium which can be recovered to keep us in cell phones and battery technology.
    Wyoming can show the country and the world that Clean Coal is possible and that the coal mining industry is important. https://youtu.be/RQRQ7S92_lo

  2. Wind generators require steel beams. Far more carbon emissions are generated in manufacturing and transporting these beams than will ever be “saved” generating electricity using wind. If your goal is carbon neutrality, wind will never be the answer.

    If you want 24/7 power for things like hospital emergency rooms, renewable energy is also not the answer. See the brilliant work of Alex Epstein, “The moral case for fossil fuels.”

    1. This is nonsense. While there certainly is a carbon footprint to steel production, to suggest that wind power will never recoup these carbon costs is simply false.

      As for emergency power, energy storage systems like batteries are already being deployed to ensure critical infrastructure does not go without electricity in a grid-outage. Check out the story in the Star-Tribune about this very thing happening in Laramie.

      https://trib.com/business/energy/a-wyoming-health-care-clinic-for-all-powered-by-the-sun/article_4345de13-668f-56e5-8e32-74879639bddf.html

    2. What you claim is not correct:
      Modern wind turbines are quite efficient and easily produce more ‘energy’ than it takes to build and operate them over their life span. Most ‘pay off’ in this regard within the first few years of their roughly 20 year lifespan.

      No, wind turbines are not strictly speaking, “carbon neutral”. (nobody is *really* making that claim anyways) They do produce carbon, but nowhere near as much as fossil fuel generation does.

      In an apples-to-apples comparison, wind generation produces WAY less carbon than fossil fuel generation. When it comes to wind generation, carbon is ‘saved’ by REPLACING higher-carbon electric generation such as fossil fuel generation, much like one would be ‘saving’ gasoline by replacing their 1984 Ford Bronco with a 2020 Toyota Prius. Yes, you ultimately still have to put gas in the tank, but a lot less of it and less often.

      Indeed, wind alone will not get us to “carbon neutral” and it isn’t without certain trade-offs and drawbacks. But it can realistically get us a very long way toward that end by merely replacing a sizable portions of fossil fuel generation. Luckily, it also happens to be a relatively cheap source of electricity, making the transition even easier.

      Life Cycle Assessment of Greenhouse Gas emissions:
      ~ 12 grams of CO2 / kWh of electricity for wind generation
      vs.
      ~470 grams of CO2 / kWh of electricity for Natural Gas
      vs.
      ~975 grams of CO2 / kWh of electricity for Coal (without Carbon Capture Technology)
      ~156 with Carbon Capture technology (but highly variable, fundamentally inefficient, and very expensive)

  3. The fossil fuel industry in the rich man’s panacea of wealth, they are destroying the earth, our health, our lives, they and our corporate behemoths, own our government, our judicial system, our very way of life, for profit!

  4. Dustin,

    A quick clarification. You wrote: “The city is considering the same program to add solar panels to its event center and recreation center.” In fact, the city has already utilized the Blue Sky program, and in fact the array is almost completely finished.

  5. Great article. Afton and Lower Valley Energy did a great project of re starting two old hydroelectric plants abandoned in the 1960s using a bond through the state. The 900 and 700 kWh stations combined with a third turbine driven by the municipal water system make Afton a leader in green, sustainable power. Sunrise-eng.org has great pictures on this cool project.

    A no brainer is put a turbine on Jackson Lake dam. The dam already exists and this would generate green sustainable power with no new impact. You literally just put a turbine on the existing outlet.

  6. Energy efficiency has a real place at the table to reduce energy consumption and therefore emissions. However, investment in solar and wind energy is being propped up by tax payers (intermittent energy). Bill Gates (a very left-leaning person) talks about this all the time. https://bit.ly/2K4DQgV (Just one article, but he has some good interviews on YouTube.) Most economic analysis I have seen are incomplete and inaccurate, ignoring cost of maintenance (yes expensive inverters fail), repair (hail is not their friend) and ownership (does your home owner’s policy recover damage, did you premium increase?) Scientists have already raised the alarm about disposal of panels containing substances that can contaminate ground water. https://bit.ly/33UlDJI Or what about the landfill in Casper where companies are transporting wind turbines from across the country to bury them in Wyoming? (Why not dispose of them in their state of origin and avoid the cost of shipping them ) Solutions that are sustainable without tax-payer subsidies hidden in public utility rates need to be found. But they are not as easy as just “shut the plant down.” just look at the consequences of shutting down businesses during the COVID pandemic. If you are one of the unlucky people trying to buy food, pay rent and have a happy holiday with your kids, it may not seem like a good idea.

    1. You make zero sense! Gates may be a Democrat (so am I) but that does not make either of us less American, less concerned about the state of our state. Please, before you post, get your facts in line.

    2. Taxpayer subsidies also exist for fossil fuel energy generation. Why should renewable energy be any different?

  7. -here’s the flip side. My city of Cody will not entertain one word of enacting anything to modernize and adapt its municipal electricity enterprise program if it means moving away from burning Wyoming coal . Specifically, the coal used at the Dry Fork powerplant near Gillette, and the wretched Laramie River powerplant near Wheatland. . Cody belongs to a little know cabal of Wyoming communities allied to form a wholesale purchase and distribution of electricity to their residents , in a sole source monopolistic manner usually It’s called WMPA – the Wyoming Municipal Power Agency and consists of Cody, Powell, Lusk, Lingle, Guernsey, Fort Laramie, Wheatland, and Pine Bluffs , whose governments buy power from Dry Fork and Laramie River . WMPA owns about 2 percent of Laramie River and 7 percent of Dry Fork and are obligated to use that generation, but on paper also has an agreement to buy offest federal hydropower as needed. It just never needs much of that. While the owner of Laramie River – Basin Electric co-op – does use a mix of energy sources including wind, solar, hydro, and natural gas plants, none of that applies to what WMPA utilizes. so yes, my town of Cody and the next town over Powell are hidebound and obligated as part owners of coal plants. laramie River is a dirty coal plant, always on the scheiss list for those things, and while Dry Fork is newer and somewhat cleaner it is still a coal burner and a CO2 belcher.

    So here’s me going before the Cody City Council when the topic of renewing their annual WMPA electricity wholesale program is on the agenda. usually a formality since Cody really has no alternative provider or Plan B , except to buy kilowatt hours on the spot market when WMPA falls short. And that is expensive, and usually also coal wattage ( remember the ENRON debacle when retail electricity was marked up 1,000 percent in California ? )

    I ask my Mayor and Council to please consider looking forward further than the next WMPA power purchase , say 5 years or 10 years, and expand their energy portfolio to include more alternative sources . Of course I’m thinking wind and solar when i say that , or fuell cells, or even atomics – and they know it. And they tell me to get lost and never darken these chambers with your vile suggestions again …we fully intend to keep supporting Wyoming coal and Wyoming coal jobs. And I am all but verbally heaved out the door . Yup.

    Or that time I brought up Net Metering was almost as severe. The City of Cody resisted that radical heresy with supreme obstinance until the Legislature tweaked the net metering rules at the state level. Cody still won’t give Net Metering much of a hearing , let alone programmatic relief. But I would be welcome to allow any of my rooftop solar excess kilowatts to find their way into the Cody sub-grid for the good of the community….so they can sell it back to me and everyone else.

    And this is why Wyoming remains a medieval feudal province better suited to the Victorian Era than the 21st century. Coal is dead . Long live King Coal.

  8. It would be tremendously helpful in reducing use of fossil fuels and achieving carbon neutrality as is desired by the people of Jackson, to rid themselves of all private jets particularly for recreational/travel use! Also are they setting up windmills there? They’ll need to fill the earth 30 deep with concrete to hold one up and the batteries they want will have nowhere for disposal as they are filled with lethal, caustic chemicals that cannot be buried in our earth. Still trying to understand why no one cares about the millions of birds burnt to death while flying innocently over solar panels, or our birds and eagles clubbed to death by windmills?! Why is this ignored?

    1. Burnt to death flying over solar panels?
      I need to see a citation on that one.
      Cats and cars kill more birds than wind turbines, and wind turbines DO NOT CAUSE CANCER!
      Environmental, health damage from ff extraction and burning is monumental compared to renewable sources!
      Believe the scientists, they aren’t trying to get rich!