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Chokecherry Sierra Madre

Kara Choquette, director of communications for Power Company of Wyoming, points to where the wind turbines will be on the Chokecherry Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project outside of Rawlins.

Wyoming lawmakers have an opportunity to put the state firmly on the right path in terms of wind energy.

An influential state legislator has relaxed his insistence on taxing wind power to a point industry says would make new projects financially inviable. Sen. Ogden Driskill’s recent openness to exempting a large Carbon County project is a welcome shift – if only a first step.

Driskill, a Devils Tower Republican and a leader in the effort to tax wind energy, said he had a discussion with representatives of both Carbon County and Power Company of Wyoming, which is developing the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project near Rawlins.

Those talks convinced him that the project – which is expected to become the nation’s largest wind farm after construction begins at the end of the year – should not be included in any wind tax increase.

Driskill’s change of heart is encouraging, but it is only a start on the list of things Wyoming should consider to foster new energy opportunities.

To begin with, Wyoming should not increase taxes on the wind industry for the simple reason that it should not be constructing barriers to doing business in the Cowboy State. That’s especially true now, in this era of declining fossil fuel revenues.

The Sierra Madre project would boast 1,000 turbines and produce energy for Arizona, California and Nevada. During construction and the next two decades, the wind farm would account for $780.5 million in property, energy and sales and use taxes to Carbon County and Wyoming.

That’s not money the state can afford to pass up, and lawmakers know it. That’s why the Joint Revenue Committee is meeting in advance of next year’s legislative session. Its members are researching taxation and exploring ways to boost state revenue. Here, they’ve hit on a significant avenue, and they should pursue exploring ways to encourage new businesses and industries – including wind energy – in the state.

Boosting taxes on wind comes with real dangers. For one thing, it might mean that new projects simply aren’t built here, and Wyoming would miss out on the jobs and revenue they would provide. That means other states will reap the benefits. Taxing wind at a higher rate also does nothing to protect coal, because a wind project could be — and probably would be — built somewhere more friendly.

Even if developers do manage to complete a wind farm in Wyoming in the face of such obstacles, an increase in taxes would likely deter potential customers who could find better deals elsewhere, in states that don’t place such financial pressure on wind farms that choose to do business there.

All this matters a great deal, because the outlook for fossil fuels is changing. Significant energy markets are lining up to purchase renewable energy. Markets are the key. If Wyoming wants to serve those customers, it must provide what they are buying, no matter how relevant traditional energy sources may still be in Wyoming. We need to add diversity to our economy – including within our energy economy.

This is not to say that turbines should march impeded or untaxed across Wyoming’s pristine and rugged landscapes. Much thought and attention should be paid to protect wildlife and viewsheds. Wind energy producers must be good corporate citizens. And there should be discussion on what happens at the end of life for these massive industrial machines that will dot Wyoming’s iconic scenery.

There is a smart approach to encourage wind energy and reap the benefits across the state — lawmakers should seize as much of the pie as is possible, not just a sliver.

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