In Wyoming, wind is ubiquitous.
We’ve found ways to adapt. We lean into gusts as we walk, putting our hands on our hats out of habit. We’re careful as we open car doors. It’s a fact of life around here.
But one thing we in the state haven’t done is figure out how to best harness wind – to put it to work for our economy. And that could be a significant opportunity.
There are questions that need to be answered, and they can’t wait any longer. Wind represents a growing sector in the nation’s energy mix because residents and leaders of other states and countries have demonstrated that they want it. They want to use renewables rather than coal. Regardless of how we in the Cowboy State might feel about it, that’s the reality.
We also don’t have the luxury of ignoring this market trend, as our state is contending with a shortfall of $100 million for general spending, plus an additional deficit of more than $700 million in the fund that pays for education. And as coal, oil and natural gas adjust to their new economic realities, that problem is not expected to go away in coming years.
Almost a decade ago, we had another opportunity to do this – an earlier wind boom. The state established regulations and held important discussions over how to encourage the industry and protect wild places and animals. Since then, the energy landscape has transformed, and Wyoming is faced with yet another wind boom – and it’s bigger than the one before. Back then, we were talking about 100-megawatt farms; now, some are 3,000 megawatts.
Now is the time for Wyomingites to decide what role wind will play in our state. We have to identify places where turbines would be undesirable and decide how big farms should be. We have to decide whether the state should tax wind generation into the future.
Now is also the time for the state to consider its identity and philosophy on wind: Should it continue to lament wind’s success in recent years when it could lead to a boon for our faltering economy? Is it responsible for the state’s leaders to encourage wishful thinking that coal will be around forever, when it most likely won’t?
Mostly, Wyomingites and their leaders need to think about whether the state should take advantage of this opportunity – and if so, what that should look like – or if it will miss out on a potential source of much-needed revenue from some of the most powerful economies in the nation and the world.
These topics and more came up at a recent two-day wind energy gathering in Laramie, which wisely sought to kick-start the conversation. Wind CEOS mingled with county commissioners and biologists to talk about these questions. But the dialogue on this emerging issue must continue even though the conference is over.
These projects are big, and so is the potential for developing the industry while maintaining the wild spaces we love – but it won’t happen unless we thoughtfully choose how we move forward. Wyoming must prepare to take its seat at the table on wind energy.