Why wind? Why now? Experts say Wyoming needs to face challenges and opportunities of new wind development
Sen. Cale Case doesn’t dislike wind power, but he believes that putting up wind turbines reduces the beauty of Wyoming’s wide open panorama, its steppes and its sagebrush-coated hills. And the Republican senator from Lander believes wind should be taxed for taking away that view.
View sheds were just one of a host of issues raised at a recent two-day wind forum in Laramie. It was a who’s who of Wyoming’s wind interests, gathering everyone from wind CEOs to county commissioners to biologists to talk about the future of wind in Wyoming.
Nearly a decade ago, there was a wind boom in Wyoming, and the state laid out regulations for the industry and debated where wind turbines should be built and whether their impact on wildlife and the environment was worth the benefits.
In the intervening years, it’s fair to say that the wind power industry has changed dramatically and now the state is facing a second, larger and more prolonged boom of wind development. The build-out is swiftly moving ahead at a time when many in Wyoming are somewhat distracted and state leaders are stressed. The fossil fuel economy that keeps taxes low and services high is frayed. Every public sector in the state has had to tighten its belt, and no one knows how long reduced revenue from oil, gas and coal is going to last.
Various experts at the wind forum in a snow-covered Laramie last week noted Wyoming wind’s potential to alleviate some of the pain of a busted economy. Others addressed why wind matters in the context of changing energy markets across the country. Some pointed out that there are downsides, and they should be weighed against wind’s offer of new jobs and new revenue in Wyoming.
“This was meant to be an emerging issues forum. We didn’t have answers, and we didn’t expect answers,” said Robert Godby, director of UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, on Tuesday. “We have a very large potential opportunity here … We don’t control what is going on outside (of the state), but those outside influences are creating a major opportunity for us. Simultaneously, they are creating major challenges.”
This may not be the first time the state has looked at how to place wind on a landscape shared with agriculture and unique wildlife, but this time, the farms are simply bigger. Proposed wind farms, like the 3,000-megawatt Chokecherry Sierra Madre near Rawlins, dwarf the 100-megawatt farms built nearly a decade ago.
“This is an issue of scale, and these issues of scale magnify the potential impacts and increase the concerns that many people have,” Godby said during the wind conference.
Wyoming is currently ranked 15th for installed wind capacity, falling far behind states like Texas and Iowa. But projects currently proposed could double that.
Will Wyoming benefit financially? Surely. But part of what the forum wanted to explore was what Wyomingites really want, said Nicole Korfanta, director of UW’s Ruckelshaus Institute of Environment and Natural Resources. The Institute hosted the conference alongside the school’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy.
To Case, one of the lawmakers who has floated an increase to the state’s wind production tax, the state should be compensated for wind.
Wyoming is the only state that has a tax on wind power, and increasing that charge to developers comes up nearly every year.
“Wind is a renewable resource, but where those wind farms are, they will be there forever. And they will sever something very important to you,” Case told the crowd. “We need a tax that is commensurate with the benefits that the best wind in the western grid provides.”
A powerful momentum is carrying the current wind build-out, and it is not necessarily being driven by Wyoming’s choices. There is an increasing demand for wind power in other areas of the country, reduced clogging on transmission lines from declines in coal power and a number of companies lining up to make money harnessing Wyoming’s wind.
In addition to Chokecherry, a project that’s been planned for more than a decade, Viridis Eolia wants to put 800 turbines near Medicine Bow and has launched a program to train workers. PacifiCorp, the largest utility in Wyoming, wants to spend nearly $3 billion adding new turbines, enlarging older ones and laying transmission lines, all before 2020.
At times speakers were imploring, asking Wyoming to face the challenges to its economy by accepting wind as a part of the future.
Wyoming has a strong sense of its own identity and its core values, but it has to have a healthy economy to keep those values alive, said Lloyd Drain, former director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority.
“If the average citizen in Wyoming can’t make a living wage, you’re not going to have to worry about values, because there ain’t going to be anybody here,” Drain said, advocating for wind. “It’s unfortunate, but Wyoming coal production is going to be a third or even half … that equates to a lot of jobs.”
Despite the flurry of activity in wind, many in Wyoming are unaware of just what could happen next. Wind farms have been proposed, and not all have advanced, in the years since the state first addressed its wind energy future, said Korfanta, from Ruckelhaus.
“We were really trying to take the temperature of the public to find out, what are the sentiments around wind energy?” she said. “We really didn’t know. We were trying to get all of those voices in one forum. That just hasn’t happened in a really long time.”
The conference brought up such a plethora of challenges and opportunities that it would be difficult to say a central direction emerged from the two days in Laramie.
However, whatever outsiders believe about green energy in the Cowboy State, whatever worries people who live in the state hold about more turbines on the horizon or renewable energy in general, wind is here. Wyoming has some immediate decisions to make about what the industry offers and how far it should spread in the years to come, experts say.
“What we really need to do is stop and talk to one another. We need to engage and consider these other points of view,” said Godby, the economist from UW, as he closed out the conference Tuesday. “We all come to this issue with our own lens – how we’re involved in it. A social decision like this requires thinking about many different perspectives.”
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