Dustin Bleizeffer: There is one state that still craves coal

Wyoming risks being left behind as the West moves to renewable sources of energy.

(Jeff Gearino | The Casper Star-Tribune via AP) In this Nov. 29, 2006, photo, steam rises from the huge boiler units at the coal-fired Jim Bridger Power Plant east of Rock Springs, Wyo.

As the rest of the West rushes to meet increasingly ambitious goals to reduce carbon emissions, one state is moving in exactly the opposite direction. It’s Wyoming, which even wants to take on the coal-fired generation that states such as Oregon and Washington are abandoning.

Wyoming residents and businesses enjoy among the lowest rates for electricity because most of the state’s power comes from burning coal, but those cost dynamics are changing quickly, making coal a liability.

Recently, a legislative committee advanced a bill to raise taxes on wind energy while also signaling distaste for rooftop solar and other forms of customer-generated electricity. It seems a perplexing stance in the context of other states in the West that are retiring coal-fired power plants at a rapid clip.

But Wyoming leaders worry little about the devastation in the West wrought by climate change, and they criticize PacifiCorp, which proposes to retire several coal-fired units ahead of schedule, for potentially harming Wyoming towns such as Kemmerer, Rock Springs and Glenrock.

Unlike Colorado, New Mexico and Washington, Wyoming has never developed a plan to transition beyond coal. Instead, state leaders are trying to force utilities to keep aging coal plants in Wyoming burning. The state is also spending taxpayer dollars in a stealth effort to lobby against coal-plant closures outside its borders, in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Colorado and other states.

Meanwhile, Wyoming is negotiating to take on the coal power within PacifiCorp’s operating region that other Western states are abandoning. That means Wyoming ratepayers — or a combination of customers in Wyoming and other states that might opt for more coal — would take on a larger coal portfolio. This could be risky financially, as the coal generation comes from older power plants, some beyond 40 and 50 years old.

Somehow, lawmakers have convinced themselves that the West’s rush to renewables is foolish and will result in a knock on the door from other states. Then Wyoming could say, “I told you so” to these states that plead for coal-fired power after wind and solar fail to meet spikes in demand.

“Reliability is a big concern for customers,” said Bryce Freeman, Wyoming’s consumer advocate administrator in testimony before a legislative committee last fall. “The cheapest electricity in the world is no good if it doesn’t work when customers need it, and that’s exactly what’s happened in California.”

Well, not exactly. There were forced rolling blackouts in California last summer, but the cause was more operational shortcomings. A report by the California Independent System Operator found that power officials failed to anticipate and contract for enough backup power while also mistakenly keeping offline some of its backup from natural gas.

It seems a shame that the state isn’t onboard with its Western neighbors to help decarbonize the grid.

“The more people and states that participate, the easier it is to achieve any emissions goal,” said Jonathan Koomey, energy and climate researcher at University of California, Berkeley. “If you have more geographic regions contributing to the grid, it makes it easier to reduce emissions.”

Anybody who has traveled the I-80 corridor across southern Wyoming knows that the state has an incredible wind resource. It even blows in the evening when customers in California need it most. There’s now a glut of potential Wyoming wind energy proposals from developers that would produce more than 5,000 megawatts with a capital investment of nearly $10 billion.

It’s worth noting that no other industry is contemplating such an investment in Wyoming, now in the throes of a historic budget crisis. Financial backers, though, are nervous, warning that the threat of higher state taxes on wind might make Wyoming non-competitive.

When the state Legislature took comment from close to 100 people about the state’s coal-only agenda last month, most residents pleaded with lawmakers not to block commercial wind power development. Lawmakers weren’t swayed.

The wind blows and the sun shines in other parts of the West, too, and the burgeoning renewable market might just blow past Wyoming. Wyoming’s stubborn reluctance won’t stop other Western states from leaving coal — and perhaps the Cowboy State — in the past.

Dustin Bleizeffer

Dustin Bleizeffer is a contributor to Writers on the Range, writersontherange.org, a nonprofit dedicated to spurring lively conversation about the West. He has worked as a coal miner, an oilfield mechanic, and for 22 years as a reporter and editor in Wyoming.