Kemmerer area residents listen to public comment during a January 2020 Wyoming Public Service Commission meeting. Some in the crowd wore safety clothing suggesting employment at the mine, power plant or railroad. (Andrew Graham/WyoFile)

I attended the Wyoming Public Service Commission meetings in Kemmerer and Rock Springs. As WyoFile reported, there were indeed many angst-filled comments regarding Rocky Mountain Power’s Integrated Resource Plan. 

The plan includes shutting down coal-fired power plants earlier than scheduled, which will have myriad impacts on workers, their communities and the state. Politicians, area businesses and workers have valid concerns, among them “economic anxiety.”  

I get it. I understand the feeling of losing one’s identity. I was laid off after nearly 20 years in the trona mining industry and lost not only my paycheck and benefits, but my social connections as well. 

A part of me will always be a miner, but I am also a hunter and an outdoor enthusiast, among other things. That’s one of the reasons I’m so concerned that energy transition be done right. 

In Wyoming we are all dependent on coal to fund local and state government. Our quality of life is heavily subsidized by coal, but energy markets are changing. Our state’s revenue streams need to diversify, along with our economy.  

So yes, there was plenty of angst expressed. But there was also another narrative voiced, one in support of the Public Service Commission’s mission to provide fair and reliable power, regardless of the source. That narrative also expressed support for the opportunities presented in a planned transition. I know because I was one of those speakers.  

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I was at the meetings on behalf of Powder River Basin Resource Council to encourage the PSC to conduct a thorough and transparent investigation of Rocky Mountain Power’s Integrated Resource Plan. 

Ensuring a fair and just process is essential, but so is the finding of facts. Diversifying our economy will depend on affordable and reliable power. A thorough investigation can help ensure that Wyoming ratepayers receive safe, reliable and affordable electric power.  

As a state, if we focus on economic diversity and revenue generation, as well as invest in workers and communities, we all benefit.  

We must not lose sight of what we love — wide open spaces and abundant wildlife. Safety and environmental regulations ought to apply to all sources of power generation, transmission and storage. But if we aren’t proactive about changing energy markets, our state could indeed suffer irreparable harm.  

It may not be popular in Wyoming to support energy transition, but it’s coming. And while we can’t force other states to buy our coal, cooperation and collaboration are possible. 

Now is the time to work together to examine and address the opportunities that the planned energy transition can provide. 

Coal transition is only one part of the IRP. How might Wyoming take advantage of the more than $6 billion that PacifiCorp intends to invest in the state for new ways to deliver power to our customers? Can we design energy development that is good for people, places and wildlife? 

Wyoming can write its own story, and we begin by embracing the interdependent reality of multi-state protocols and global markets. Bringing our ideas and values to the table is essential.  

Wyoming does need to make its voice heard in the larger conversation of global energy. Responsible energy can remain a cornerstone of Wyoming’s economy well into the future. 

The Public Service Commission is one factor in this situation, but its role is limited. It is not an economic development agency, and shouldn’t be expected to address the apprehension expressed at the public meetings. We need other solutions, especially from state leaders, but also from the grassroots.

We can learn from other coal communities what works and what doesn’t. Most of all, we should take advantage of the opportunities inherent in a deliberate transition, while never losing sight of what makes Wyoming unique.  

Michele Irwin teaches civics at Western Wyoming Community College and works as a consultant to Powder River Basin Resource Council on energy transition in southwest Wyoming. She and her husband raise a...

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  1. I grew up in Gillette, and now live in another state, I’ve been following the news closely that’s been coming out of the Wyoming legislature in recent days. It sounds… desperate. I know the folks in Wyoming are feeling threatened, among other things, and I understand it. But it pains me to see them declaring that they’d rather die on a mountain of coal and carbon rather than explore alternatives and diversification. In Kansas, where I live now, ratepayers here get about 40% of their daily electricity from wind, an industry that’s boomed here in the last decade. It’s brought jobs to people in rural communities that are hurting, and landowners are making money on lease payments they could never come close to making on crops or cattle (with a minimal amount of land being taken out of production). Market forces are driving these changes more than anything and that’s not going to change as the cost per kilowatt is now cheaper for solar and wind than it is for coal.

  2. Well said, and timely. Wyoming residents, and others around the west need to pay attention to reasonable energy transition, like you suggest.

  3. thanks for speaking up on this, Michele, and for your years of experience in mining as well as caring about the land beyond its monetary value.