Wind turbines face gusts from the southwest at a facility north of Medicine Bow in August 2019. (Dustin Bleizeffer/WyoFile)

Opinion

A different wind is sweeping over the plains of Wyoming — the winds of change. As a co-founder of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, I’ve been involved for over 20 years in discussions related to Wyoming’s energy future. It is heartening to see the path that Wyoming is on toward net zero as new attitudes emerge about climate change and opportunities for clean energy sources in Wyoming’s global leadership in energy.  

The new Natrium small modular nuclear reactor, to be built in Kemmerer on the site of a retired coal-fired power plant, typifies the emergence of these new ideas. If successful, this will be the first prototype of its kind to have demonstrated the feasibility of this kind of technology. As such, it holds the potential to foster the growth of a global market for an industry centered in our state. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s wind power capacity has doubled over the past year and a half, from 1,500 to 3,000 MW, and continues to expand at this rate. The recently announced Project Bison, to be located in Southwest Wyoming, will become the world’s largest direct air capture  project — capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it underground. 

Gov. Mark Gordon deserves credit for acknowledging the global challenge of climate change and crafting a net-zero approach to address the challenge the Wyoming way. Setting climate concerns aside, there’s widespread recognition that dependence on coal revenues isn’t a good long-term economic or job-sustaining strategy. In Wyoming and nationally, coal-fired power plants are being retired at an accelerating rate.

Furthermore, the market has spoken. The cost of renewable energy continues to drop, and with corporate environment, social and government investment trends gaining increasing traction, financing is going to projects that address carbon emissions. D.C. leadership has further spurred the search for alternatives. With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there are serious opportunities and funding on the table to launch projects in Wyoming covering the gamut in clean energy.   

What makes Wyoming’s current response to these trends different from the past? The state is pursuing a full-court press, involving collaboration among all relevant sectors, groups and agencies in the state and beyond, to discuss and propose ideas in economic diversification in the face of the energy transition now underway. Wyoming has started to look beyond what is in our state to what is happening in our region. This process of collaboration has also now extended to other states to include other entities (e.g., Idaho/National Laboratory with the Natrium reactor, and Colorado, New Mexico and Utah with a proposed new regional hydrogen hub). As a result of the mutual feedback gained through this collaborative process, those involved have been able to “think outside the box” to take a fresh look at what is possible.  

Wyoming is increasingly gaining attention as a place to launch clean energy businesses. In addition to our low-cost business environment and pro-energy orientation, our state hosts a first-rate workforce. As noted at the recently held Frontiers Project conference by the president of L&H Industrial, a global heavy industrial manufacturing and repair company based (with 150 of its 500 employees) in Wyoming, the state has a highly skilled and highly motivated workforce of “gearheads” (drillers, welders, machinists and mechanics) working in machine shops like his, as well as in power plants, the oil patch and coal mines. L&H finds more of these workers in Wyoming than it can find anywhere else. Sometimes the company even sends Wyoming workers to operations in other parts of the nation and world because it can’t find the necessary skills locally, he told conference goers. When a workforce like that is combined with the capacity for innovation of an Idaho National Laboratory or a TerraPower — corporate sponsor of the Natrium project in Kemmerer — “amazing things can happen,” he said.

In the 20 years I’ve been involved in Wyoming’s energy future, it is encouraging to see the new possibilities afoot in clean energy and beyond.  Wyoming is leaning forward in the saddle with its energy policy. This is a welcome creative process for us, involving crossing cultural, economic and technological barriers which, only a few years ago, we did not see on a close horizon.

David Wendt

David Wendt is the co-founder and former president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs (www.jhcga.org), founded in 2002. Prior to co-founding JHCGA, David was a director at the Center for Strategic...

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  1. Yes on all the nuclear in Wyoming. Billions of dollars invested here and not elsewhere. We, the USA, are actually buying Russian oil right now so we need more energy development (including oil and gas development) to guard against that mind-numbing fact, and guard against being held hostage by future enemies. Nuclear will help but more drilling can be done now and it isn’t the same threat in a military theater (think Ukraine).

    Any economic development in Wyoming that isn’t related to low-wage industries like hospitality is certainly welcome. Even greenwashing developments like Project Bison. Selling offsets is big business, but probably not forever. We should welcome the industry to Wyoming while it’s still hot.

    Perhaps the State can award carbon credits as an incentive to have companies move here. Tesla, which received free regulatory credits (cost the government nothing), sold them for billions. The Massachusetts Audubon Society received carbon credits for conserving forests that were never in danger of being cut down, and sold them for $6 million to oil/gas companies who, obviously and therefore, weren’t actually offsetting their emissions. It’s a great scam that we should monetize, maybe with less of the scam but free money is free money. This is the time to strike.

    With federal money flowing like the Mississippi River of red ink (Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act), I am sure Wyoming can, will, and should milk that cash cow (while pretending to care about the debt/deficit, no doubt). Wyoming doesn’t have a real road map to the future, at least not yet. Our future working class will leave, are leaving and will not arrive here if better opportunities and communities are elsewhere.

    Apparently, Wyoming has the potential of producing 116,670 MW of wind energy, and probably the potential to destroy critical habitat in the process – including killing many of our feathered friends, but that is a lot of energy that can power 21 million homes forever. We have an excess of wind-swept “waste” land all over the state begging for development. Will the state fail to act?

  2. “With the passage of the Inflation Reduction Act and the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, there are serious opportunities and funding on the table to launch projects in Wyoming covering the gamut in clean energy. ” It’s great to read that Wyoming’s politicians are starting to see the light, (feel the heat) but how many of them voted for those Acts? I suppose sometimes you just have to look past the hypocrisy and hope for the best for the citizens of Wyoming and the country.

  3. Mr. Wendt,
    The Governor of Wyoming should also look at how much more money could come into the state with Wildlife Viewing. The sighting of a grizzly bear attracts millions of visitors from all over the world. The Yellowstone ecosystem and the Tetons are the Serengeti for the United States. Think about the tourism dollars the state could bring in if it focused on saving the wildlife migration corridors and promoting tourism.
    I am a lay person with this information, but could turn you on to scientists who know the facts and numbers.

  4. Thanks for this David. It’s nice to hear that Wyoming’s golden energy years of energy development and supply are ahead of us, not behind.

  5. Dear David Wendt,
    So, you are really excited about the new EXPERIMENTAL “Natrium small modular nuclear reactor, to be built in Kemmerer on the site of a retired coal-fired power plant”, right! Your words. Then you said, “If successful, this will be the first prototype of its kind to have demonstrated the feasibility of this kind of technology”. So what if it isn’t successful? I live in Uinta County not even an hour away from this new experimental technology. My family members live in Kemmerer. So If it “isn’t successful” what does that mean? Quite honestly I’m quite negative about the fact that an “EXPERIMENTAL” nuclear plant is being built in my literal back yard. If it isn’t successful does that mean those of us in Southwestern Wyoming are all going to be exposed to nuclear radiation or byproducts? Where is the waste going to be stored? What is going to be transported on I-80 less than a mile from my home? Can you tell me that? If so, that is more than anyone has bothered to tell those of us that will be living in the proximity of this “if it works technology”.

    It actually would have been nice if we could have had more impute and maybe even more education about what is coming our direction! Our community has been told nothing! Do we even trust the people behind this project do they really have our health and safety in mind or are we just a part of this BIG NUCLEAR EXPERIMENT? If it doesn’t work out – you say so casually, oh well it’s just all the people in southwestern Wyoming they don’t really matter anyway! Right, they’re not really a part of Wyoming anyway, right. Actually I am not happy that our governor is pushing us this way – clean energy or not. If Governor Gordon cared about us maybe he would have come and taken the time to educate us about what was happening related to this project! He’s lost “my vote” this time based on ‘his’ not ‘our’ decision to go nuclear! At least he could have respected us enough to tell us what is going to impact our lives and possible health – that never happened! No one did that! They just decided to bring this here. So, David Wendt, if you like it so much why don’t you see if you can get this “if it works technology” EXPERIMENTAL nuclear plant in your backyard!!!! Maybe they should build one in Jackson for all the tourists to come and see! That’s right like most people it sounds great until it affects you directly. Like windmills it’s great for the rich unless it blocks their view of the ocean. I got it. I would feel so much better if Bill Gates and Warren Buffet build their huge mansions and actually move in and live right next door to to this “if it works technology” maybe then I would trust it more. Oh well, it just my life and why should that matter. I’m just a nobody, right!

    1. Yet, when TerraPower did public forums in Kemmerer there were ANY negative comments or feedback from residence. The community completely welcomed TerraPower and the nuclear plant.

  6. Agreed. There is also very exciting and important work on energy going on at the University of Wyoming. This fall I attended a science and technology focused conference from the School of Energy Resources and later an energy law and policy focused conference from the Haub School of Environment and Natural Resources. UW has bright forward-looking students and nationally recognized professors focused on a number of energy challenges. The breadth of what is happening in Wyoming is exciting.

  7. Republicans take credit for the inflation reduction act in their home districts and vow to repeal it on the campaign trail because democrats passed it. So all the above will go off the tracks when republicans take control.

  8. All of the above is the approach we need. Clean is fine, but cheap and reliable are the priorities. Keeping our country prosperous and free is the key to protecting our environment.