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Controversial wind bill intended to help coal; critics question final outcome

Controversial wind bill intended to help coal; critics question final outcome

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From coal to wind

Wind turbines are seen through the window of the Glenrock Coal Company’s former office in July. The former mine site has been developed by Rocky Mountain Power as a wind energy project.

Sponsors of a bill that would penalize wind and solar generation used for Wyoming electricity argue that Senate File 71 would help the state’s struggling coal sector.

Wyoming’s green-friendly neighbors, like Oregon and California, legislate against coal due to its high carbon dioxide emissions to the benefit of wind and solar. SF 71 uses that same tactic in reverse, explained the bill’s sponsor, Sen. Larry Hicks, R-Baggs.

“We are just saying that in Wyoming if [other states] want to decrease [their] consumption of coal-fired electricity, we might want to increase ours with one of these six sources,” he said.

The bill allows for six types of electricity resources, including traditional fuels like coal and oil, and some rare types for Wyoming, like hydroelectric. Wind and solar are not on the approved list.

If signed into law, SF 71 would then charge utility companies like Black Hills Energy or Rocky Mountain Power $10 per megawatt hour on electricity generated in the state for use by Wyoming customers. Companies would have until 2019 to be 100 percent compliant.

However, the bill initiated a statewide grumble over how to best use Wyoming’s resources. Critics argue the bill would fail to relieve pressure on coal and instead would inhibit the diversification of Wyoming’s economy. Other lawmakers are unsure the bill can make it this session, when most lawmakers are prioritizing ways to address Wyoming’s budget shortfall.

The sponsors and the bill’s opponents agree that Wyoming’s modest electricity demand can’t make up for a decrease in coal-fired electricity use in multiple states. But supporters say it could offer some relief to the troubled coal sector. The cold war tactic to combat federal and state support for wind would make Wyoming’s stance clear, they say, and Wyoming stands with coal.

Other voices

Missing from the long list of SF 71’s sponsors, most from coal-rich areas of the state, is Sen. Michael Von Flatern, R-Gillette.

The bill will not benefit coal, the conservative lawmaker from coal country said in an interview.

Wyoming’s electricity demand is too small for SF 71’s tactic to make a dent in the overall market, he said. Moreover, the bill raises questions, he said.

After large utility companies like Rocky Mountain Power have spent millions of dollars and many years developing wind farms in Wyoming, it may be unfair to pass a law saying the company can’t use that in the state anymore, he said.

There are other concerns as well, Von Flatern said.

The Wyoming Public Service Commission is responsible for guaranteeing the lowest possible cost to the consumer in the state. Hypothetically, wind could become the cheapest resource, and Wyomingites would be barred from that low-cost boon, he said.

SF 71 may also complicate a decades-old federal law that requires utility companies to buy energy from small generators who otherwise would be left out of the market. In Wyoming, it’s mostly small wind farms that take advantage of the law, selling their energy to large utilities like Rocky Mountain Power, though RMP doesn’t need the added energy.

It’s unclear exactly how the bill would impact this federal law, or the utilities that are forced to comply with it, said Mark Petrie, chief counsel for the Public Service Commission.

“... so would this mean that by following a federal law state utilities are required to pay a Wyoming-specific penalty to follow the federal law?” said Rob Godby, director of the Center for Energy Economics and Public Policey. “It puts those utilities in a potentially tricky spot.”

House majority floor leader David Miller, R-Riverton took no issue with the bill, saying it would keep consumer costs low.

“Frankly at my house I want the electricity generated by coal, because that’s the cheapest way to go,” he said. “I think that was the intent of the bill.”

Michael Madden, R-Buffalo, is listed as a co-sponsor of the bill. The Johnson County resident said he was named in error. He does not believe the bill can pass in the current session.

No retreat

The sponsors of SF 71 are adamant in their support.

One of the bill’s sponsors, Sen. Ogden Driskill, R-Devil’s Tower, debated the bill’s efficacy in a Facebook stream Wednesday. A commenter said coal had no future and asked why the senator didn’t see wind as a chance to diversify Wyoming’s economy.

“Put the shoe on the other foot,” Driskill responded.

“We have subsidized wind … while regulating coal out of business,” he said. “This is not the American way.”

He went on to assert that forcing consumers toward clean power has led to commercial and residential bills going up.

“I will withdraw my support of the bill the same day that we remove the forced use of “clean power portfolios nationwide,” Driskill wrote.

Hicks echoed that sentiment in an interview in Cheyenne.

“We can’t do anything about the federal government other than to protest and litigate. But we certainly have the ability in Wyoming to pass electricity standards,” he said.

The bill is awaiting a committee designation in the Senate.

Arno Rosenfeld contributed to this report from Cheyenne.

Follow energy reporter Heather Richards on Twitter @hroxaner


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Energy Reporter

Heather Richards writes about energy and the environment. A native of the Blue Ridge Mountains in Virginia, she moved to Wyoming in 2015 to cover natural resources and government in Buffalo. Heather joined the Star Tribune later that year.

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