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Hits to coal prompt leaders to look elsewhere for development

in Energy/Economic development/News
As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.

By Seneca Flowers, Cowboy State Daily

As revenue from coal continues to decline, many people around the state are looking at new ways to use the state’s rich resource and think outside of the coal box for future portfolio diversification.

Many people watching renewable energy expect it to eliminate the need for coal, but they are often not thinking out of the box, according one state representative.

State Rep. Mike Greear, R-Worland, said people are often neglecting coal’s future possibilities. Greear is co-chair of the Legislature’s Minerals, Business and Economic Development Committee. He said the state has many developments it is exploring that still involve coal.

Greear said the University of Wyoming is continuing research on carbon capture sequestration and the utilization of the C02 for enhanced oil recovery. He visited the Petra Nova carbon capture and sequestration facility in Houston and believes Wyoming facilities would be great candidates for the same technology.

The Petra Nova facility is currently the only existing American coal-fired power plant using the carbon recapture technology, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration. The facility captures the C02 from the plant, liquifies it, and then injects it into oil fields. 

The process causes oil to swell, increasing the oil recovery volume. The process has reduced C02 total emissions at the Petra Nova facility by 33 percent.

Rob Godby, director for the UW’s Center for Energy Economics and Public Policy, said the state is actively helping develop new products for coal to maintain tax revenues. He said once promising technologies become developed, companies are more willing to adopt them. 

He pointed as an example to pipelines in Wyoming delivering C02 from natural sources to enhanced oil recovery operations. If C02 captured from coal-fired plants could be sold, the revenue could offset the overall cost of coal-generated electricity and make it more competitive with natural gas. 

Not a coal problem

However, if the state continues to focus only on coal as a large revenue source, leaders may be missing other great possibilities, according to one person working directly with growing businesses.

Fred Schmechel, assistant director of the Wyoming Technology Business Center, works at the UW in a program that helps businesses grow with a goal of bringing more revenue to the state and employing residents. So when state revenues decline, he sees the results directly in his workplace. Yet, he cautions everyone who considers this a “coal problem.”  

“Wyoming doesn’t have a coal problem,” Schmechel said. “Wyoming has a revenue problem. When we reframe it like that and figure out how we pay for our services, that opens up much broader funnel of possibilities.”

 Schmechel sees diversification of the economy and expansion of revenue streams as vital to the future growth of the state.

“If we keep trying to sell to the same 10 people, none of us are going to get rich, but if we broaden our scope and sell beyond our borders, bring that cash here, that’s where we increase our lot,” Schmechel said.

Schmechel said if wages increase, people can pay more for services and make the state less dependent on coal revenue. He also suggested that getting businesses to use services based in the Cowboy State can help expand revenue streams. 

“If we continue to focus on developing companies that solve problems outside of Wyoming and bring more revenue in, that ultimately brings more cash on hand to play with,” he said.

Greear also thinks the state needs to explore alternatives to coal, but bringing new business to Wyoming is easier said than done.

Severance taxes or bust

“We are going to still be mineral reliant in this state so long as we hold onto our current tax policy,” Greear said. 

He added he does not see the tax policy changing, but that he believes a policy change is needed. 

Change, however, would alter the dynamic and culture of the state. That places Greear at odds with some of his constituents who simply aren’t ready for change. As an elected official, Greear said he must listen to them.   

“Most people understand the changes with society,” Greear said. 

He added it is easier to push those concepts in towns like Laramie and Cheyenne because of their proximity to Fort Collins and Denver, but such changes might not fly in a town like Worland. 

Towns are also dependent on larger populations to attract and sustain more tech and business, leaving smaller towns out of the mix. It also makes it unrealistic to apply a one-size-fits-all approach to the issue, he said.

Holding out for the youth

Schmechel also said he wants to keep young people in the state and create jobs for them so they can to “plant their roots” for future generations.

Schmechel sees economic diversification and development as a way to expand a town’s culture, not diminish it.

“There are lots of people who look at anything that we are doing like this and assume we are losing our culture of Wyoming, and I think those people are mistaken,” Schmechel said.

“We don’t have to be Boulder or San Francisco. We are never going to be those communities. We have found in Laramie, Casper and Sheridan, where we have our three incubators for the WTBC, that each of those communities bring on their own feel.” 

As those communities grow and develop, their core values are moved forward, growing and strengthening their existing culture.

Godby also sees the need for diversification as necessity to independence.

“Do we need to diversify more, yeah,” Godby said. “The problem is when you rely on energy, you are going to be bound by energy cycles that are out of your control and typically driven by things outside of your state.”

The Blackjewel effect

Rick Mansheim, manager of state Workforce Centers in Gillette and Newcastle, has watched the Blackjewel layoffs from the front row. He has a lot of conversations with the workers and businesses around the state. He also believes Wyoming needs more jobs outside of energy.

“The key is diversification,” Mansheim said. “We need to broaden our scope.” 

He believes internships and early career path exposure is key to getting young workers involved in that effort.

Greear believes economic development around the state is productive, but often suffers from growing pains.

“There are some really good economic development organizations within communities,” Greear said. “But it’s kind of the hand your dealt. Cheyenne is going get a lot more looks at things you are not going to get in Worland.”

 He added that state leaders sort of had tunnel vision attracting specific types of businesses that were not fits for every community. 

“What is going to work in Cheyenne is not going to work in the Big Horn Basin,” Greear said. 

ENDOW’s impact across industries

But he believes creative ideas are still important. He cited the Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming — ENDOW — initiative as helping leaders think outside of the box. 

ENDOW was created in 2016 to diversify and expand the state economy.  Greear said ENDOW challenged people to think outside of the box and pursue opportunities such as value-added agriculture, which is changing a product to enhance its value through niche marketing, uniqueness or improving a supply chain.

Schmechel, whose organization assists many businesses with incubator programs and creative solutions, sees both existing and new economic sectors as exciting opportunities for business growth.

He added Wyoming’s vast spaces would be great for autonomous vehicles and drones. In addition, he suggested exploring UW’s cache of intellectual property for application in industries such as agriculture and making sure it is being used correctly.

He said the state’s agriculture community is doing great things and should be expanded upon.

One of first state ‘Kickstart’ companies in operation

in News

By Jim Angell, Cowboy State Daily

One of the first companies to receive a new type of economic development grant from the state of Wyoming has started operations in Cheyenne.

Nymbl, financed in part by a $50,000 startup grant from Kickstart: Wyoming, uses its proprietary software to help companies sell and deliver small quantities of imprinted merchandise.

The service is particularly valuable to small companies that may want to sell imprinted products such as coffee cups and T-shirts but do not want to keep large inventories of the goods on hand, said Chris Mickey, Nymbl’s director of marketing and outreach.

“We want to give people who have a small business or small following a chance to merchandise,” Mickey said. “Our platform makes it so they don’t have to have any inventory at all.”

Users of the system, a band, as an example, can set up an account at the company’s website, nymbl.io, and select from a list of products what it wants to put on the market. Using the software developed by Nymbl CEO Zac Folk, users can virtually apply a logo or design and then preview how the products will look.

After linking the product page to their own website, users can then direct visitors to the Nymbl site, where visitors can select the product they want, right down to size and color, and then place and pay for the order. Manufacturers used by Nymbl the handle the shipping.

Kickstart: Wyoming is a Wyoming Business Council program that provides grants of $5,000 to $50,000 to startup companies with a high growth potential and fewer than 50 employees.

In addition to the state financing, Nymbl received an investment from Breakthrough 307, an organization created to provide capital to Wyoming companies.

Breakthrough 307 is made up of 20 investors who have put money into an account to invest in small Wyoming companies like Nymbl, said Jerad Stack, one of the group’s founders.

“We are really excited about Nymbl,” Stack said. “It’s a high growth space, a value-added e-commerce platform that will solve a really big problem. We’re looking for companies that solve problems in really big markets and Nymbl is definitely that.”

Such private sector involvement was identified as crucial to economic development efforts by the “Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming” or “ENDOW” program created by former Gov. Matt Mead.

The program’s primary goal was to identify ways the state can break away from the “boom and bust” cycle of its energy industry. In 2018, the group released its 20-year plan.

Stack, who serves on ENDOW’s executive council, said his group agreed before ENDOW released its report that one of Wyoming’s big problems was a lack of access to capital for entrepreneurs.

“When you go and look at the lists of best states to do business in … Wyoming is consistently 48th to 50th in our ability for entrepreneurs to access capital,” he said. “When you look at venture capital, ‘angel’ capital, early seed stage money, there isn’t a lot of that. We see ourselves as part of that.”

Stack and his fellow investors started Breakthrough 307 about 18 months ago and have made fewer than 10 investments in fledgling companies. The group is very selective in its choices of investments.

“We’re doing this to help Wyoming companies and we also want to make a profit,” he said. “So not every little startup is something you make a profit on. When you look at the statistics on these investments, most fail and a handful succeed. But you don’t know which is which going in. You’ve got to pick what you think are a bunch of winners.”

After investing, Breakthrough 307 provide the expertise of its investors — who include experts in technology, finance and marketing, to name a few areas — to the companies it has invested in.

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