Blake Nuzzo is ready to get out of the oil and gas business. At 58, he’s been a welder, worked in a steel mill and sweated it out in the oil fields. Following jobs, Nuzzo trekked from Louisiana to Kentucky before landing in Wyoming about eight years ago. Commodity prices were high, and jobs were plentiful.
The boom didn’t last. It never does, he said.
So on a scalding summer day, Nuzzo joined about 40 other men and women in work boots and baseball caps and sat in a hotel conference room in Casper to learn about wind.
It was one of three seminars across the state to gauge Wyoming workers’ interest in becoming wind technicians, the fastest growing occupation in the U.S. The first meeting was held in windy Rawlins, where more than 100 people showed up. Wednesday, the pitch was made in Casper, where the oil and gas business reigns. Thursday, wind manufacturer Goldwind Americas and wind developer Viridis Eolia take their spiel to the center of the nation’s coal industry: Gillette.
The companies plan to offer free training programs for wind techs, anticipating Viridis’ proposed 600- to 800-turbine farm near Medicine Bow. The farm will be set up and maintained by Goldwind. Though the farms are years out, the companies hope to lay the groundwork for a ready workforce, gleaned from the existing labor force in Wyoming. With industries like oil, gas and coal, the men and women of Wyoming are well versed in working in hazardous conditions, with heavy machinery and under strict safety protocols.
The timing is providential. Wyoming needs diversification now, said Loyd Drain, former director of the Wyoming Infrastructure Authority. Drain is assisting Goldwind and Viridis to get the word out on wind energy potential in the Cowboy State.
The economics of energy are changing, he said. Wyoming was blessed with a coal resource during the last 40 years, but that industry is being challenged by cheaper sources of power, from natural gas to renewables. Now the state has a new blessing, he said: wind.
“Remember, if this is the first time you’ve heard of this revolution that is occurring, remember where you heard it,” he told the crowd. “Over the next 10 years or so, watch the energy industry and see how that plays out.”
The meeting was attended by a handful of politicians, including Jesse Morgan, a local city councilman who works in the energy industry. Morgan spoke in favor of the diversification offered by wind, particularly given the recent downturn in oil, gas and coal. Morgan said he had to lay off 34 employees, only to be laid off himself shortly after.
Rep. Steve Harshman, R-Casper, was also in the audience, a football coach and longtime lawmaker who grew up in a small town in the heart of the Salt Creek oil field.
“I’m a former, probably, wind hater,” Harshman admitted. “I was raised in Midwest, (where) it’s all about oil and gas and coal. But I think I’ve kind of jumped over that fence in the last year because of these realities coming at us.”
Harshman also raised some doubts about wind often heard in Wyoming: Wind farms have a reputation for killing birds, and they obstruct the state’s invaluable viewshed.
Those are real concerns, said Rob Godby, director of Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, one of the speakers of the day. The professor is not affiliated with the Goldwind program but has worked extensively for the Legislature and the University of Wyoming, studying the economics of wind energy, its potential benefits and downsides.
Wind farms have come under pressure regarding avian kills, but that’s led to stricter controls on how farms are placed on the landscape, he said. Proper siting has helped reduce the risk to eagles and other birds.
The viewshed is a trade-off, he said. On the one hand, the places where developers want to build wind farms in Wyoming are a small footprint in relation to the entire state. On the other hand, there is a value in the open landscape that’s irreplaceable, he said.
“I’m not trying to argue that there won’t be a viewshed impact,” Godby said. “We have to look at this realistically as a state and say what opportunities do we want to have? What opportunities are we giving up? That’s the conversation that we all have to have.”
Drain, formerly of the Infrastructure Authority, and Godby both spoke of the phenomenal growth of natural gas in recent years that has displaced coal’s dominance in the energy mix. As renewable costs continue to decline, more developers are looking to invest in the cheapest source of power generation: wind.
That will likely further displace coal, Godby said. However, the growth of the wind industry means increased demand for employees, leading to these statewide interest meetings.
“Regardless of whether wind development occurs in Wyoming, the country is going to need a lot of wind techs, because [wind development] is happening,” Godby said. “So the question becomes, would we rather have the wind energy here or see it occur somewhere else?”
The speakers were followed by the CEO of Goldwind and leaders of Viridis, who laid out the opportunities their companies offer in Wyoming.
Nuzzo, the oil worker from Louisiana, stepped out of the meeting for a cigarette in the shade of the hotel awning.
Though he doesn’t like the idea of too many wind turbines on the landscape, he doesn’t think wind is the enemy.
“It’s like [Drain and Godby] said, this is coming whether we like it or not,” Nuzzo said. “I’m just looking to survive in whatever way.”