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Wally Wolski

Wally Wolski: It’s Time to Cowboy Up Wyoming

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By Wally Wolski, guest columnist

A few years ago, I had the pleasure of serving on the ENDOW Executive Council.  Our group was tasked with developing a 20-year economic diversification strategy for addressing unexpected challenges by taking advantage of potential opportunities. 

I can still recall our in-depth deliberations on how to capitalize upon disruptive services by utilizing new technologies.  Well my friends, the future is upon us, and Wyoming – we have a major problem. 

Let me state the obvious, our state is currently facing an unprecedented economic crisis.  Even after cutting out 20 percent of the state budget, we are still facing a deficit of around $250 million dollars which is considerably better than what we had earlier braced for in wake of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Meanwhile, our reliance on mineral royalties and tax revenues are in serious jeopardy. 

Over the years Wyoming has been very fortunate, always touted being a business friendly state and having one of the nation’s lowest personal tax rates while providing essential services costing approximately ten-fold greater than taxes annually collected from an average family. 

For many years Wyoming citizens have financially benefited from residing in a mineral-rich state.  But sadly enough those glorious booming days are now behind us and maybe forever. 

Regulators have openly declared war upon our coal industry while environmental advocacy groups portray coal as the root of everything bad for the environment.  Even the recent California wildfires from last summer were blamed on Wyoming because of our mining of coal.

Today Wyoming stands at a crossroad concerning the future of coal production with only two options. 

As a state we can either accept the fact coal is steadily being eliminated and just go along with the inevitable. 

Or we can respond the way Wyoming folks usually react during any crisis and take it upon ourselves to find a common sense solution by working together for the better good.  

The dilemma Wyoming faces today is out-of-state investor owned utilities have chosen to abandon their traditional 24/7/365 base-load power plants and replace the output with intermittent wind-powered capacity.  

Furthermore, these same IOUs seem to be ignoring the lessons learned in Texas, a catastrophe caused in part from the retirement of dependable 24/7/365 coal-fired energy. 

The question which remains unanswered is whether or not these out-of-state IOUs, on behalf of their shareholders/investors, are truly acting in the best interest of their captive Wyoming customers?  I do not believe so and let me explain why.

Wyoming’s elected legislators, working on behalf of local stakeholder/consumers are in a position to make major energy policy decisions regarding the future operation of coal-fired generating facilities within the boundaries of our state. 

It is time for a game changer.  We need to start thinking outside the box.  We need a vision for transforming Wyoming’s energy landscape and capitalizing upon disruptive services by adapting to new innovative technologies. 

Now is the time to take legislative action for insuring both economic stability and energy reliability.  Wyoming has a very unique opportunity to lead the nation in 24/7/365 reliable base-load generation by retro-fitting existing coal-fired generation with carbon-capture technologies for converting 24/7/365 coal produced electrons into environmentally friendly green electrons.  

For the past several years, the Wyoming legislature has urged research and made investments in carbon technologies. 

How can Wyoming remain an effective advocate and promote the exporting of Powder River coal outside the boundaries of our state or around the world if Wyoming is not willing to take a proactive position for preserving its our own existing power plants by retro-fitting them with proven carbon-capture technologies? 

The truth of the matter is Wyoming has a golden opportunity to keep our 24/7/365 coal-burning facilities in service while demonstrating to all the other states how to become more environmentally responsible by retro-fitting existing fossil fuel plants with new carbon-capture technologies and becoming a shining example for other coal-fired generating facilities across the nation to remain viable, thus creating an increased demand for Wyoming’s greatest natural resource, Powder River coal.  

Currently four energy bills have been introduced during this legislative session recognizing the importance of carbon-capture. 

All of these bills are fundamentally similar, protecting the reliability of the state’s energy portfolio while safeguarding to avoid experiencing what happened in Texas.

The proposed legislation mandates existing utilities to continue operating their reliable base-line 24/7/365 coal-fired generation by retro-fitting these power plants with carbon-capture technologies.  

Some critics will be quick to claim the legislation is too complexed or unworkable. 

However, the proposed legislation provides an alternative for any utilities unwilling to comply with the requirements of installing carbon-capture technologies, an option to sell their assets to qualified buyers who are willing to step forward and comply with any new regulation. 

 Wind-powered energy must always be a part of Wyoming’s energy mix, however dispatchable 24/7/365 coal-fired generation needs to remain more than simply a backup convenience benefiting renewable energy producers. 

In the absence of battery storage technologies, both wind and solar renewable energy will continue less reliable than 24/7/365 coal-fired generation.

Recently the Biden Administration announced the Department of Energy will be gearing up to disperse up to $40 billion dollars in loan guarantees for a variety of clean air projects. 

Secretary Granholm specifically mentioned “projects to capture and store carbon dioxide emissions”, with 40 percent of the designated dollars targeted for disadvantaged communities and states affected by lay-offs in the energy sector. 

It appears Wyoming communities and instate coal plant operators may become prime candidates for receiving a portion of those allocated federal funds.

The bottom line, a one-time incentive is now available and within our grasp for generating a new revenue stream to assist the state in alleviating the current budget deficit while providing a path for Wyoming to become the nation’s environmental leader for controlling greenhouse emissions.  Wyoming can and must convert coal into green energy. 

Passage of the proposed legislation would be a huge step forward in making that a reality.  

Change is inevitable – it’s time to Cowboy up Wyoming and embrace carbon-capture technologies as a means for future economic growth.  The benefits outweigh the objections and the ball is in the legislature’s court with the public eagerly watching from the sidelines awaiting the final outcome.

F.E. “Wally” Wolski, Served as Wyoming State Director Of USDA Rural Development, Past President of the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association, Former Goshen County Commissioner & farms near Yoder, WY

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