LARAMIE -- Wyoming has a reputation for not liking wind, and that’s a problem if it’s trying to diversify its economy via wind farms or wind industry manufacturers.
That's according to Riata Little, vice president of economic and project development for the Casper Area Economic Development Alliance. Little spoke at a two-day conference about wind energy in Wyoming that covered its potential benefits to local communities, the challenges wind developers face and the common controversies wind energy stokes in the Cowboy State.
The conference falls at an important juncture for the renewable resource in Wyoming. The state’s wind industry is poised to expand rapidly in the coming years, particularly in a wind belt from Casper to Rawlins, where some of the country’s best high-velocity winds sweep across the landscape. The state is also coming to grips with the long-term impact of recent declines in fossil fuel markets.
One uncontroversial topic, finding its way into practically every discussion broached Monday, was the need to expand the state’s economy beyond the booms and busts of energy markets.
Wyoming needs wind as part of its quest for diversification, and it’s not simply a question of coal versus wind, said Little, nodding to a common frustration for those loyal to the coal industry, a bedrock of the state’s economy that is struggling to compete with cheap natural gas and renewable resources in the power market.
But Wyoming is not doing its best job at bringing wind to the state, some say. It’s sending mixed messages to potential business, Little said.
“There is a real feeling that Wyoming is not open for business for wind,” Little said. “That is the biggest problem I’ve seen … They don’t want to come to Wyoming, to a place where the public is not welcoming.”
Rep. Mike Madden said the challenges to the state’s economy keep him awake at night. The Republican lawmaker from Buffalo has consistently sought to increase the tax Wyoming levies on wind, arguing that it is offset by large federal tax benefits for the industry.
But Wyoming is in trouble, and wind can mitigate against some of the pains caused by fossil fuel dependence, he said.
In 2014, the energy industry was carrying the cost of sending about 68,000 of Wyoming’s approximately 90,000 students through K-12. That’s dropped to around 55,000 students, Madden said.
And though the state has shored up savings from the good times, those funds won’t last forever, he said.
“The rainy day fund is just what it is. It’s a fund that can be used, but the more it is used, the quicker it runs out,” he said.
Madden held to his belief that the tax on wind pales in comparison with the taxes placed on other energy industries.
“When it comes to energy sources, I’m agnostic about it,” Madden said.
The argument that Wyoming’s wind tax is a significant hurdle to bringing in business is inflated, he said.
Neighboring states have gobbled up new businesses and diversified their economies despite having higher taxes than Wyoming, he said.
Larry Wolfe, a longtime energy lawyer in the state, asked the panelists whether they believed the leadership in Wyoming's Legislature was influencing the state’s unfriendly reputation for wind development.
“Are we going to miss the opportunity because of that kind of uncertainty?” he asked.
The panel moderator, Wyoming Treasurer Mark Gordon, who is exploring a run for governor, punted the pointed question. He said he believed it takes courage to make these difficult choices.
However, the financial quandary that lawmakers are dealing with is not nearly over, he said.
“Our state has not come to grips with that yet,” Gordon said. “It needs to.”