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Energy journal: Should Wyoming give solar energy a shot?
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ENERGY JOURNAL

Energy journal: Should Wyoming give solar energy a shot?

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In many ways, Wyoming’s landscape is ripe for the production of electricity from the sun: high altitude, minimal cloud coverage, open spaces and existing transmission lines.

But utility-scale photovoltaic, or solar, development hasn’t taken much root here. At least not yet.

The state only has 137 megawatts of solar generating capacity installed, ranking 39th nationwide in solar energy, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Investments in solar energy often face public scrutiny given the state’s loyalty to the coal, oil and gas sectors. But could Wyoming’s yawning fiscal crisis and foundering fossil fuel sectors give the renewable energy source another chance to elbow into the state’s energy scene?

Proponents of the renewable energy source point to solar technology’s increasing efficiency and cost-effectiveness, not to mention its potential tax and job contributions for the state.

Prices for solar have steadily dropped and technology has advanced, to the point where the commodity can compete with the likes of natural gas. Hunger for renewable energy nationwide has also been on the upswing. Similar to coal, most of the energy captured at solar farms in the Equality State would likely be exported to other states consuming more electricity than Wyoming.

But the state has a long way to go if it wants to catch up to solar hot spots like its neighbor, Utah.

Utah has nearly 1,800 megawatts of solar installed, with an additional 1,434 megawatts expected to go online within the next five years. About 140 solar companies operate across the state. The industry pumped nearly $185 million into Utah in 2019 alone.

This past week, I spoke with Christine Mikell, a renewable energy developer with the Utah-based firm Enyo Renewable Energy, to learn more about what it takes to develop utility-scale solar in the region. In addition to forming Enyo Renewable Energy, Mikell is an engineer, entrepreneur and city council member.

Mikell is also working to create a utility-scale solar farm right here in Wyoming, though she admits growing solar projects in Utah has been a bit easier.

“From a permitting perspective, I must say it’s pretty simple and inexpensive to get a permit for solar here (in Utah),” she said.

Utah offers a fairly tax-friendly environment for developers, with low property taxes and multiple tax exemptions, among other incentives. Utah’s governor has said the state is open for business, Mikell added.

“I think this is why you’ve seen such a large growth of solar in Utah,” Mikell said. “Wyoming, I would say, is sort of the opposite. And you tend to go where it’s easier to develop.”

Wyoming lawmakers have been somewhat fickle in their stance on wind and solar development over the years.

At the Legislature’s most recent budget session, lawmakers passed a bill adding another hurdle for renewable energy developers to jump through. It requires large solar energy facilities to undergo a review by the Industrial Siting Council before companies can break ground on Wyoming’s sun-parched soil. Conversations over a possible increase in the electricity generation tax have made appearances during the Legislature’s interim committee meetings in 2020, too.

That said, Mikell doesn’t think Wyoming necessarily needs to adopt all of Utah’s policies to make the state a magnet for solar development.

State officials have a tricky task on their hands: A state needs to establish a business-friendly environment but also look out for its residents and demand proper compensation from companies using the land.

In her eyes, Wyoming’s future in solar is still bright with potential: “There are lots of opportunities for solar in Wyoming.”

What’s ahead

Mikell is behind a proposed solar energy project by Dinosolar LLC in Natrona County. (Dinosolar is a subsidiary of Enyo Renewable Energy). The team at Enyo wants to construct a 240-megawatt commercial solar photovoltaic system on 1,170 acres of leased private land a half-mile west of Bar Nunn and 1.5 miles due north of Mills.

If constructed, the solar energy farm would be the largest in Wyoming.

Mikell and her team selected the site near Casper due to proximate transmission line access, availability of private land and the geography of the area. They also sought to avoid land with extractable minerals or sensitive wildlife habitat.

One of the project’s solar photovoltaic power generation facilities would link to the utility Rocky Mountain Power’s Casper North Substation. Another would connect to the Bar Nunn substation. Together, the solar panels would generate enough energy to provide power to 51,700 Wyoming homes, according to the company.

The Natrona County Board of Commissioners approved a permit earlier this year to build the solar farm north of Casper near the town of Bar Nunn.

But there’s still a long road ahead for the project.

For one, the state’s leading utility, Rocky Mountain Power, would need to select Dinosolar’s project as a contractor, and it’s a competitive process.

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In an effort to expand its renewable energy portfolio and save ratepayers money, Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest utility, is on the hunt for independent power producers able to provide 354 megawatts of solar energy to the grid.

Dinosolar is currently on a long interconnection queue, alongside several other wind and solar project proposals. The amount of potential power far surpasses the amount of power actually needed, so Rocky Mountain Power will need to whittle down the list.

“It’s like getting into Harvard,” Mikell said. “It’s very competitive.”

If selected, Mikell hopes to start construction in 2022 and wrap up around the end of 2023.

The project would need a workforce of over 200 when construction is in full swing.

Dinosolar LLC anticipates the project will generate $2.04 million in property taxes for the county in the first year of operation and $46.7 million over the project’s 35-year lifespan. In addition, during construction, $8.7 million will flow to the county through sales and use taxes, and nearly $3 million would also be contributed through other tax revenue.

“Enyo Renewable Energy understands the importance of community, expanding Wyoming’s energy mix and diversifying the local economy,” Mikell concluded.

To her, community means “working alongside traditional fuel sources, hiring locally and bringing jobs and revenue to Wyoming.”

COAL

  • Decker Coal Company furloughed 73 workers at its Decker coal mine last week. The company told the Star-Tribune the workforce reductions were in response to depressed electricity fueled by a tightening economy and stay-at-home orders.
  • The Wyoming Public Service Commission moved to delay finalizing its investigation into the state’s largest utility on Tuesday, after an energy company made an eleventh-hour request to include additional evidence in the case. Commissioners had initially scheduled public deliberations on its investigation into PacifiCorp for the afternoon of Sept. 8 but ultimately delayed the proceeding. The commission determined it needed additional time to weigh the merits and legality of introducing additional evidence, which in this case involved a study on the potential benefits of retrofitting coal-fired power plants with carbon capture. 
  • A study released last week by the Department of Energy outlined how retrofitting four coal-fired power plants with carbon capture technology in Wyoming could reduce emissions and maintain jobs.

OIL & GAS

  • A new study published by the Petroleum Association of Wyoming and the American Petroleum Institute found instituting a ban on leasing federal land to oil and gas operators would have grave economic consequences for the entire country, but especially for Wyoming. The analysis investigates how policies outlawing the practice of leasing federal land to energy companies could result in the loss of 33,000 jobs in Wyoming alone and compromise roughly $640 million in revenue for the state.
  • The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency will allow Wyoming regulators to take the lead in regulating underground injection wells used to store carbon dioxide. The decision effectively grants the Wyoming Department of Environmental Quality primacy to monitor class VI injection wells.
  • This class applies to wells depositing carbon dioxide deep underground in rock formations.
  • Oil and gas companies operating on public land in Wyoming reaped the vast majority of royalty and lease relief from the federal government during an aid program spurred by the COVID-19 pandemic. As of the end of July, the BLM had approved 324 royalty reduction requests on 261,000 acres of public land from operators in Wyoming, by far the most of any Western state.

WIND & SOLAR

  • The new owners of 5 million combined acres of land and mineral rights in southern Wyoming say they plan to pursue opportunities to expand renewable energy development in addition to existing drilling and mining activity, the Star-Tribune’s Nick Reynolds reports. It’s a potential new source of revenue for the state as Orion Resource Partners takes over land long held by oil companies Anadarko and Occidental Petroleum.
  • The 25th Annual National Solar Tour will host a virtual tour from Sept. 28 through Oct. 2 and showcase several Wyoming homes and businesses in Sheridan, Buffalo, Cheyenne, Laramie, Casper and Gillette — all equipped with solar energy. For more information on Wyoming’s solar tour, contact Powder River Resource Council at 307-672-5809 or email info@powderriverbasin.org. For more information on the National Solar Tour, visit nationalsolartour.org
  • Carbon County recorded sales and use tax growth for the 11th consecutive month, even amid the economic recession caused by the COVID-19 pandemic. Wind energy development spurred a significant portion of this economic activity, according to Wyoming’s Economic Analysis Division.

CONSERVATION & LAND

  • Members of the U.S. Senate met for the first time last week to contemplate legislation that, if passed, would grant Wyoming the ability to manage endangered grizzly bear populations within the Greater Yellowstone Ecosystem, Nick Reynolds reports.

ANNOUNCEMENTS

  • This fall, the Star-Tribune will publish a special section, created by young people in Wyoming, outlining their concerns about the energy industry, sharing what they value and offering up some solutions. I hope you will join with me in listening to their ideas. The project is made possible through the support of the Solutions Journalism Network. If you or someone you know is interested in participating in this project, please reach out anytime at camille.erickson@trib.com or call 307-266-0592. Submissions are due by Sept. 28.

Last week in numbers

Friday oil prices:

  • West Texas Intermediate (WTI) $37.46, Brent (ICE) $39.89
  • Wyoming General Sour $24.75, Wyoming General Sweet $29.50

Friday natural gas:

  • Henry Hub $2.25

Baker Hughes rig count:

  • U.S 254 (-2), Wyoming 1 (-0)

Quote of the week

“Proceedings like this one — this investigation (by) the commission — they are very, very important. They don’t happen very often. Our suggestion to the commission is that to conclude this investigation, without admitting the study into the record would mean that the commission could be missing out on an important opportunity to achieve a complete record in this matter.”

Dale Cottam, attorney for Glenrock Energy

Follow the latest on Wyoming’s energy industry @camillereports

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Energy and Natural Resources Reporter

Camille Erickson covers the state's energy industries. She received her master's degree at Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism. Before moving to Casper in 2019, she reported on business and labor in Minneapolis, Chicago and Washington.

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