A Note From Pete:
Sometimes the world outside Wyoming’s borders changes faster than we do, and for all the pride we have in our independent nature it can be a detriment as much as an asset. These ideas are evident in this edition of The Pete Simpson Forum. Wyoming businessmen Scott Kane and Shawn Houck take separate paths to arrive at the conclusion: Wyoming must change its ways.
Kane sees an opportunity for Wyoming to lead in renewable energy and energy efficiency — an opportunity that is perhaps overshadowed by an intense focus on preserving a coal industry that might not ever regain favor in a carbon constrained world. “The time has come for Wyoming to reinvent its relationship with energy and, to some extent, its self-image,” Kane writes.
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As a young entrepreneur who launched a successful advertising business, Houck understands that Wyoming will not make the most out of its unique qualities until it adapts to the values of today’s young professionals. “It’s clear that if we want to continue to enjoy the abundance of opportunity that exists in our state, we need to make retaining and attracting young professionals a top priority,” Houck writes. That includes adapting progressive social values, as well as investing in communities in ways that diversify cultural and entertainment opportunities.
Change and challenge go hand in hand and, as the old fable has it, both are inevitable. Let’s hear from you. What do you think change in Wyoming might look like in 10 or so years, and how best might it be addressed?”
— Peter K. Simpson
Wyoming must reinvent its relationship with energy
by Scott Kane
— July 1, 2014
Bison were once the most numerous single species of large wild mammal on Earth. From the 1840s to the 1870s, when early Wyoming pioneers were still making a fine living on bison skins, skulls and tongues, they were still so abundant that no one could imagine the plains of Wyoming without these numberless herds. By 1884, the American Bison population collapsed to near-extinction. The hunt was over and those who had made their living from this bounty were suddenly out of work.
Powder River Basin coal has supported thousands of Wyoming jobs and brought decades of reliable income to state treasuries. When geologists tally the remaining reserves and when energy companies tally the fuel supply for our power plants, they anticipate that the abundance will outlast our great-grandchildren.
Whether you are a bison hunter or coal industry employee, it is hard to see this great, dark mass of wealth, either grazing the plains of eastern Wyoming or lying beneath its soil, and understand its limitations. In the modern case, the limitation on this vast resource is not its quantity but rather the atmosphere’s ability to absorb its carbon and the world’s tolerance for our indifference to the health of the global climate. A time may come when, despite rich coal mines and despite our willingness to use these reserves, we are informed in clear terms that we may no longer do so. That time may come before Wyoming is ready for it.
This process has already started. EPA rules limiting the CO2 emissions from power plants cast uncertainty on their future operation. New coal-fired plants are not being financed or built. It is industry’s current hope that if we can’t burn it here, we might be able to ship it to parts of the world where it will be tolerated for just a little while longer.
By any measure, the clock is ticking toward a day when one pillar of the state’s income structure will crumble. Our choice is this: do we spend the next decade investing our political capital and our research dollars to prolong the era of coal as long as possible, or do we use the next decade to invest in a new and different energy infrastructure?
Imagine this alternative future: Through the next decade we redirect some of the state’s investment in coal (since 2007, Wyoming has directed $41 million to UW’s Advanced Conversion Task Force alone) to the development and deployment of large-scale wind power, rooftop solar and energy efficiency. What could be more strategic than using the royalties at the tail end of the coal era to build the infrastructure of the next generation’s energy sources?
How do we get the most mileage from our investments? Wind power, energy efficiency and, more recently, distributed scale solar power are economically attractive or are nearly so. Providing small encouragements in these areas can unleash large private investments. The state could serve as the catalyst to enable the private sector to invest and the state can invest its own funds with attractive returns.
Here are several strategies:
— Invest in energy efficiency and renewable energy on state buildings. Schools, state office buildings, WyDOT shop buildings, public rest rooms, state park facilities: The state writes a check every month, year after year for their utility bills. A solar power system installed now on the roof of a school means that school will buy less electricity every month for the next 25 to 30 years. If the solar offsets just 10 percent of the building’s energy needs, each of the next 300 monthly bills will be reduced by 10 percent. When utility rates rise, that school is 10 percent insulated against that increase.
— Improve the regulations that encourage people to generate energy from renewable sources. As solar has become mainstream in other parts of the country, lessons have been learned about how to streamline regulations, permitting and approvals. Smart utility rate structures can encourage renewables and conservation while preserving profitability for the power companies. The Legislature, the Public Service Commission and local governments can write the rules that enable rather than restrict.
— Provide a small financial incentive to help motivate investment in renewable energy on homes and businesses. It wouldn’t take much. The economic case for solar is already pretty good, especially for people and businesses that can make use of the federal tax credit for solar. A small incentive by the state would provide a financial tail wind and the show of support would bolster customer confidence that the state is on their side. Successful incentives in other states have taken the form of sales or property tax exemptions, low interest loans and outright grants.
Walmart recently announced that it will double the number of on-site solar energy projects at its U.S. stores, Sam’s Clubs and distribution centers by 2020.Over the last few years Walmart has made significant progress toward its goal to be supplied by 100 percent renewable energy. If Walmart sees the sense in it, mightn’t we, Wyoming’s people, expect that our state investigate a similar strategy on our state buildings?
And just in case anyone argues that solar and wind are not ready to meet the daunting power demands of the modern world, take note that Germany, a country that would give all its beer and bratwurst for Wyoming’s solar and wind resources, met 27 percent of its national energy needs from renewables in the first quarter of 2014. It even set a new record this week when on a sunny midday, its grid was 74 percent powered by renewables.
The time has come for Wyoming to reinvent its relationship with energy and, to some extent, its self-image. Our sun and wind define our landscape our wildlife and the way we live. Perhaps the sun and wind can now become driving forces in our economy as well.
— Scott Kane is the co-owner of Creative Energies, a full-service renewable energy company serving Wyoming, Idaho and Utah. Since 2001, the business has focused on helping its customers choose environmentally preferable ways to meet their energy needs. He lives in Lander, Wyoming.
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