The coal industry is in trouble.
Coal’s share of the country’s electricity mix dropped from about 50 percent in 2007 to just 33 percent today. In 2015 alone, the U.S. coal industry’s earnings fell 25 percent. That’s a scary reality in a place like Wyoming, where much of the economy comes from fossil fuels. In contrast, solar energy growth more than doubled in 2016 from the already record-breaking growth the year before. But instead of working toward forward-thinking solutions for the state, politicians in Wyoming are choosing to bury their heads in the sand about the future of energy and place a losing bet on dying fossil fuel industries.
State Sen. Larry Hicks introduced a bill recently that would, if passed, prohibit utilities from providing any electricity from large-scale wind or solar to the state by 2019 – regardless of what Wyomingites might want or what makes business sense.
The bill is seemingly spurred by fear as coal workers saw mass layoffs from two of the top coal plants in the state in the past two years. Legislators are acting as if, by preventing other forms of energy from entering the mix, Wyoming could prevent future job losses. But that’s just not true – and, in fact, by blocking renewable energy development, they’re stifling job growth in the state.
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The reality is that coal use is plummeting nationwide, and Wyoming is exporting less than in years past. Job losses in the industry will continue whether or not Wyoming adopts renewable energy choices. And here’s the kicker: Wind and solar are growing rapidly; growth that is expected to continue indefinitely.
This past year, 63 percent of all new utility-scale electricity generation in the United States came from renewable sources, primarily wind and solar. Nationwide, solar energy now employs more people than coal, oil and gas combined. Iowa, another state once largely dependent on coal, now gets 31 percent of its power from wind energy. In Texas wind power makes up 16 percent of the electricity mix and is now cheaper than oil and gas, creating tens of thousands of local jobs in the process.
The same could happen in Wyoming. According to a 2015 study out of Stanford University, if Wyoming were to fully embrace its renewable energy potential, more than 20,000 good-paying jobs could be created in the state by 2050. And in addition to job creation, ramping up clean energy in Wyoming and other states could help the United States move toward energy independence and cut our reliance on foreign oil.
It’s important to remember that, with clean energy, it’s not just our economy that wins. By embracing wind and solar, Wyoming’s water, air and wildlife could also benefit greatly. Both energy sources require virtually no water use relative to coal, oil and gas. In a state with decade-long drought conditions, that’s a big deal. And, unlike most other energy sources, air quality is not affected by wind or solar – that’s good for the health of workers and communities, as well as the health of the planet. Similarly, large wind and solar farms that are well-sited and planned have only minimal effects on wildlife.
But Wyoming’s legislature could prevent any of these benefits from even being available to their own constituents. By blindly and desperately prohibiting utilities from generating electricity from clean and reliable energy sources, Wyoming legislators are slamming the door on opportunity and depriving Wyomingites of the ability to support diverse energy sources that will help the country to move toward energy independence and bring long-term job creation to the state.
Greer Ryan is a sustainability research associate at the Center for Biological Diversity.