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.