Wyoming Confronts Its Wind-Powered Destiny

Source: By Chris Outcalt, Wired • Posted: Thursday, April 2, 2020

The Cowboy State should be a renewable energy juggernaut, but it’s dominated by fossils fuels. Next step: Thinking of the future instead of digging up the past.

A massive wind turbine rises into the air about 60 yards from where I stand. Silhouetted against an endless blue sky, the structure is taller than the Statue of Liberty, and the tips of its three blades spin more than 150 miles per hour, fast enough to complete one revolution every four seconds or so. Looking up at it from the ground is disorienting; I feel as if I’ve shrunk. Even the Ford F-250 pickup I’m about to climb into—one of those monsters with a roaring engine and an extra bar to help you step up into the cab—seems miniature. I listen, but if the turbine itself is making a hum or whir, I can’t hear it over the relentless pounding of the wind, a white noise accompanied by the sound of the air snapping against the loose fabric of my jacket.

Opposite me, on the driver’s side of the pickup, is Laine Anderson, director of wind operations at PacifiCorp, a public utility company that powers more than 140,000 square miles across six Western states. As I move to hop in the truck, Anderson cautions me to watch my door. He’s never actually seen one blow off a vehicle, but PacifiCorp does cover the possibility in safety training.

The wind farm we’re touring today is called Glenrock, one of nine that PacifiCorp operates in Wyoming; they are among the more ideally situated wind farms in the US. Wyoming’s topography—a series of mountain ranges and plateaus spread diagonally across the state—creates a sort of natural funnel. In some towns near the end of that funnel, the gusts are so strong and persistent that trees noticeably lean to the east. In fact, the wind blows harder and with more regularity here in south-central Wyoming than just about anywhere else in the US. And yet compared to Texas, Iowa, California, and several areas across the Great Plains, Wyoming lags far behind in wind development, ranking 16th for installed wind capacity. Glenrock stands in a state where renewable energy has been, if not quite embattled, then stigmatized and viewed with contempt. And the reason for this cold reception is, in a way, written on the landscape of Glenrock itself.

Anderson shifts the truck into gear and starts up a hill. Up high, you get a better sense of the wind farm’s scope: 158 steel turbines that look like pinwheels copied and pasted into neat rows across 14,000 acres. You also get a sense of its backstory. Constructed in 2008, Glenrock was the first wind farm in the country to be built on top of a reclaimed coal mine—a feat of modern engineering that doubles as a particularly on-the-nose metaphor for the transformation that Wyoming has been reluctant to embrace. “Right here on our left, this was an open pit,” Anderson says, pointing to a rolling field.

Wyoming’s attachment to fossil fuels runs deep. For more than a century, roughnecks have been scraping through layers of Wyoming’s topsoil, mining coal and drilling for oil. In the 1980s, the state’s coal sometimes accounted for a quarter of the energy consumed by the entire country. Coal mining jobs brought pride and a middle-class lifestyle. Taxes and royalty payments from subterranean resources have paved the state’s roads and built its schools. So when the wind industry came along, it was greeted by many with a mix of uncertainty (because it was new), derision (because it was “green”), and fiscal opportunism (because energy has always been the state’s golden goose).

Many of the people who work in Wyoming’s wind sector have themselves made the transition from livelihoods defined by fossil fuels. Anderson graduated from the University of Wyoming with a degree in petroleum engineering in 1984 and then, as he put it, “drilled wells from North Dakota clear down to Arizona.” That lasted about five years, before the region’s oil industry went bust. Anderson spent the next two decades on dude ranches, entertaining tourists on horseback rides and fly-fishing adventures. When he and his wife sent their two kids off to college, he started looking for a new challenge. PacifiCorp happened to have an opening in renewables. “So that’s what we did,” he says. His first job was to help build Glenrock.

Casey Collins, who is Glenrock’s day-to-day manager, is riding along in the pickup for the wind farm tour. He too was a former oil-field worker, and I wondered if the guys from his oil days give him a hard time for taking a job in renewables. “I get shit all the time!” he tells me. “Most of it’s based on misconceptions and ignorance, to be honest. I’ve been asked several times, ‘How much natural gas do you have to pump up there to get those things spinning?’”

wind turbine wyoming

 

Wind turbines turn at PacifiCorp’s Glenrock facility outside of Casper, Wyoming. PHOTOGRAPH: CODY COBB

Just over a decade ago, in the late 2000s, the wind prospectors arrived in Wyoming. A New York Times piece from 2008 compared them to the brash oilmen snatching up acreage and drilling rights in the film There Will Be Blood. They drove miles out into the country, knocking on the doors of ranchers and other landowners, trying to secure easements that would be needed to construct future wind projects. It was the pit of the Great Recession, and for many Wyoming ranchers those deals were welcome news. PacifiCorp, in a joint venture with two other utility companies, had built the first full-scale wind farm back in 1999. Ten years later, the sector seemed primed to lift off.

In Cheyenne, the state capital, however, the prospectors were about to get schooled. Lawmakers at the gold-domed capitol building studied reports by consultants who suggested that Wyoming’s wind was so superior that the industry could bear a tax on energy production. Michael Madden, a Republican state legislator from northern Wyoming, helped shepherd a proposal for a tax on every megawatt-hour generated by wind. Minnesota was the only other state with such a tax, but that was levied instead of a property tax on wind farms; Wyoming was considering adding the generation tax on top of an existing property tax.

The idea didn’t seem all that edgy to Madden. Mining companies pay severance taxes for “severing” minerals from the land, and the way Madden saw it, wind farms were severing something too—the state’s picturesque landscape. Turbines, jutting up into the horizon, are a stain on the state’s rolling hills, mountain ranges, and big open skies, he argued. “The pristine nature of the state,” he said, was being violated.

Renewable energy proponents flooded the halls of the state capitol with counterarguments, contending the tax would impede the growth of a new industry, one that could bring new jobs, albeit not as many as coal. They also noted that coal extraction, with its gaping strip mines that slice across the terrain, disturbs the landscape too.

In the end, the legislature passed a $1-per-megawatt-hour tax, to be imposed after a three-year grace period. It was lower than the $3 tax Madden had wanted, but it was not the only one levied on wind. The lawmakers also let a sales tax exemption on renewable energy equipment, like turbines, expire in 2009—which made construction costs more expensive. Wind proponents argued that the state effectively had imposed three taxes on the industry—on sales, on generation, and on property.

Across the country, meanwhile, the Obama administration was trying to encourage wind energy projects by extending federal tax credits. Wind farm developers chose other states with steady wind and more hospitable legislatures.

From 2011 to 2017, while wind farms proliferated throughout the US, not a single company completed a new utility-scale wind project in Wyoming. The tax “had a chilling effect on some developers wanting to invest more in the state,” says Tom Darin, senior director of Western state affairs for the American Wind Energy Association, a trade group. At least one developer that was already working in Wyoming, Duke Energy, took its new efforts elsewhere, investing $3 billion in other states.

While wind development came to a standstill, calamity struck the state’s main sources of revenue. In the decade since Wyoming’s 2009 legislative session, coal production has fallen. In the first quarter of 2019, it was down about 30 percent compared with 10 years ago—despite the Trump administration’s repeal of the Obama-era Clean Power Plan, which aimed to reduce emissions from fossil fuels. No one is predicting a turnaround. Last fall, two of the state’s largest mining companies filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy, leaving nearly 600 miners without a job overnight. “We’re seeing the death of an industry the state has depended on for decades,” says Robert Godby, deputy director of the Center for Energy Regulation Policy at the University of Wyoming. (Coal paid $199 million in Wyoming severance taxes in 2018; the power generation tax on the state’s wind farms brings in about $4 million a year.)

“It’s not the wind turbines that are knocking coal off the grid,” Godby says; but the mining crash has, if anything, only hardened the affinity for fossil fuels. In Wyoming, odds are you’re never more than a person or two removed from someone making a living on coal. Renewables have come to be regarded as an existential rival. Hesid Brandow, community organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council in Sheridan, Wyoming, told me about ranchers who had quietly installed solar arrays; they liked the self-sufficiency and practicality but asked her not to mention to anyone that they had them.

There is truth to the idea that renewables are beginning to rival fossil fuels, even in Wyoming. Coal still accounts for 24 percent of the energy consumed in the US (and Wyoming coal for about 11 percent). But wind and other renewable sources are catching up, in large part because their cost is coming down. Wind, the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the US, now compares favorably to both coal and natural gas. According to a 2019 analysis conducted by the financial advisory firm Lazard, coal costs between $66 and $152 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, natural gas costs between $44 and $68, and wind is between $28 and $54.

One reason costs have come down over the years is that turbine technology has steadily improved. Blade heads with sensors and 360-degree rotation can make the most of wind coming from any direction. Turbines have also grown taller and their blades longer; taller towers help in some regions, like the Southeast, by lifting the mechanism above the tree line, and bigger blades draw in more air. Both improvements mean you can generate energy more efficiently in places where the wind isn’t blustery. There are more advancements coming. Companies are working on even bigger offshore turbines and modular components for turbine blades, which would make the parts easier to transport on smaller roads and through denser cities.

Another reason renewables are becoming more competitive is that states are swearing off fossil fuels. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to make a 100 percent renewables pledge. California was second, announcing in 2018 that the state would get all of its energy from climate-friendly sources by 2045. Other states—New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Washington—have since committed to transitioning to renewables. Some public utilities and large technology companies such as Google and Microsoft are making similar pledges.

In January, the US Energy Information Administration, which crunches energy statistics, forecast that all renewable energy would produce more of the country’s electricity by 2050 than any other form of energy, much more than nuclear and coal and a bit more than natural gas.

That projected increase, from 19 percent to 38 percent of electricity production, assumes no new policies, regulations, or breakthrough technologies. In other words, wind and solar prices are now competitive enough to thrive without subsidies. (And just in time. After Congress passed a one-year extension late last year, the tax credit that the federal government has offered to companies to build wind projects will expire on January 1, 2021.)

All these changes in the engineering and economics of renewable energy have, taken together, begun to overcome the drag imposed by Wyoming’s taxes. The incentives are just that strong. PacifiCorp is moving forward with plans to add nearly 2,000 megawatts of Wyoming wind as early as 2024 while also retiring a few of its coal-fired power plants early. “We made a big bet on Wyoming back in the ’60s and ’70s” when coal was booming, says company spokesperson Spencer Hall, referring to a time when PacifiCorp invested heavily in coal-fired power plants. “And now we’re betting on Wyoming again.”

Another closely watched enterprise is making an even bigger wager on the state. Backed by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, an entity known as Power Company of Wyoming has set out to build one of the largest wind farms in the country. Unlike PacifiCorp, which is a utility with a built-in customer base, the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, as the project is known, will sell its power to utilities and private customers.

It’s a massive undertaking: The farm’s 896 turbines will double the amount of wind generation capacity in the state. It took eight years for Anschutz’s company to get environmental and other clearances, but the first turbines are expected to go up sometime in 2022, with the whole project completed by 2026. At that point the only problem will be how the heck to get all that energy captured from Wyoming’s troposphere into the laptops, light bulbs, and Teslas that need it.

While Wyoming’s geography produces some of the best wind in the country, it also complicates the process of exporting energy. The state produces 15 times more energy than it consumes, and its turbines are relatively far away from California and Nevada, where the big populations of electricity-hungry consumers live. Electricity moves around the US on three separate grids—one for the West, one for the Midwest and East, and one just for Texas. Wyoming taps into the Western grid. But many of the power lines within that grid are privately owned and have been leased to specific users, or are already overloaded.

One solution is more transmission lines, but getting them built is a bear. In the Eastern grid, the electricity flow is controlled by a handful of centralized organizations. Aside from one in California, there is no such authority in the West; the lines are managed by a patchwork of independent operators. To construct a new line from, say, Wyoming to California means getting permits and fulfilling rules and regulations across multiple jurisdictions.

Still, given the potential for cheap wind, PacifiCorp has a project in the works for about 400 miles of new power lines connecting a substation in southern Wyoming to another in Central Utah. Right now, the company has to dial back production when the lines are crackling to capacity. “Once we get the new transmission line in, that should not happen,” says Anderson.

For the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre project, the Power Company of Wyoming could buy its way onto one of the new PacifiCorp lines. More significantly, Anschutz is also investing in a $3 billion line, called the TransWest Express Transmission Project, that would carry wind energy along 730 miles of high-voltage lines from southern Wyoming to Las Vegas.

Another potential choke point is a familiar one. With revenues from coal drying up, and wind taking off, lawmakers have floated the idea of increasing the wind-generation tax—to as high as $5 per megawatt-hour. Godby, of the University of Wyoming, argues that those who are considering a steep tax increase on wind are being shortsighted; if you discourage future wind projects, you might end up reducing overall tax revenue and undercutting the purpose of the tax. At some point, he says, you have to wonder whether the goal is less about filling state coffers than trying to stop wind development altogether.

Or to give a leg up to coal at wind’s expense. In mid-February, Wyoming governor Mark Gordon, a Republican, threw his support behind the coal industry during his state-of-the-state address. “We will not recklessly abandon our most abundant and reliable energy source just because it is unpopular with some people,” Gordon said, while also calling for tax breaks for oil and gas. Legislators were right on it. One bill now being considered would subsidize the development of unproven carbon-capture technology to help keep coal viable and would require public utility companies like PacifiCorp to produce a fixed percentage of electricity from “reliable” sources. The bill goes on to define reliable as “generated electricity that is not subject to intermittent availability.” In other words, not wind.

Madden, the state official who first championed a generation tax, retired from the statehouse in 2018; but he’s still outspoken about energy, and he still supports a wind tax. When I called him recently, he said the tax “should be closer to $4 if we’re going to be treating the sources of electricity creation equally.” But during our conversation it was clear Madden’s point about fairness ran deeper than just dollars and cents; he seemed irked by the attitude among some people working in renewables. “The wind industry doesn’t think they should be taxed,” Madden said. “They think, ‘We’re doing more good than we are harm.’ ”

In some ways, Wyoming’s wind tax gambit has actually worked. Yes, it was at least partially responsible for a sustained period of non-development, but there is so much money to be made that at this point, developers might even tolerate a slightly higher tax. During one of my conversations with Godby, I asked if wind could actually help with Wyoming’s depleted state budget. “Renewables won’t save Wyoming by directly replacing the economic loss the downturn in fossil fuels will cause,” Godby says. “But, potentially, it’s a large part of the solution.” It’s a delicate balance.

After touring Glenrock, Anderson and I drove about an hour south into Carbon County, the site of four PacifiCorp wind farms. Two more are being built now.

Anderson pulled into a 74-turbine project known as Dunlap I and introduced me to the site manager, a big, friendly guy named Todd Looney. He’s been in the wind business for 16 years. Most guys, he says, don’t last more than a year or two. “You’re basically a mechanic,” he says. But your toolbox is in a truck 300 feet down a ladder.

Then, Looney says, there’s the wind itself: “It takes a different person to work in the wind, blowing all day every day. That eats at people.” I asked Looney what’s made it possible for him to survive in this industry for so long. He turned and looked me in the eye: “So, my last name is Looney; a lot of it’s because I’m about half crazy.”

After the tour in Carbon County, Anderson and I hop back in his truck. On the drive to Casper, he tells me that he sees customers—like Facebook, which opened a data center in Utah—starting to demand renewable energy. Change, in other words, is cultural as well as economic. The conversation made me think back to something he’d said earlier in the day: that any big shift toward wind is going to take time. “Right now, wind is just a small bucket here in Wyoming, and they’re trying to compare us to coal that produces billions in dollars,” Anderson says. “But they’re trying to pick on us, ‘You’re not going to do what coal does.’ Well, no kidding: Coal’s been around for 100 years.” The challenge facing Anderson—and all of us—is that we don’t have 100 years to wait.


CHRIS OUTCALT (@chrisoutcalt) is a journalist living in Colorado.