Driving west across Wyoming, there are windmills lined up across bluffs in the distance. Oil and gas rigs dot both sides of the highway. Open-pit coal mines too. What you won’t see on a cross-state trip are any fields of solar panels. In Sweetwater County, that could soon change.
In May, the Sweetwater Solar Energy Facility gained one of two permits needed to begin construction for an 80 megawatt (MW) solar project. That’s enough to power 12,000 homes each year, according to the 174 Power Global’s project description – that’s the parent company. 80 MW is a lot, considering Wyoming only has 1.6 MW installed of solar right now. And if all goes well, the company says this 703-acre plot could be dotted with solar panels by the end of the year.
Devon Brubaker, director of the Southwest Wyoming Regional Airport, is a big proponent of solar. He’s installed the maximum amount of solar energy you can at this airport, which isn’t much, and he’d like to install a lot more. Brubaker said he's hopeful the potential massive facility could open the floodgates for other major solar projects in Wyoming.
“The first one is always the hard one. Once that’s done I think we’re going to see a lot more pop up,” Brubaker said.
He added solar just makes sense here. Nationally, Wyoming ranks 11th in the country for potential solar generation, according to the National Renewable Energy Laboratory. The state also has a lot of cloudless days per year plus strong sun at a high elevation.
Yet, Wyoming sits at 49th nationally in installed solar generation, 50th in solar jobs, and one of only six states left with no utility-scale solar. There’s a reason for all this and Brubaker thinks he knows what it is.
“In terms of environment, is there enough sun for solar? Yes. Unfortunately, the political climate isn’t where it needs to be to make that happen at this time,” he said.
Scott Kane has experienced how Wyoming politics have gotten in the way of solar development. He operates a solar company, Creative Energies, in the state as well as in Idaho and Utah. Unlike other mountain west states, Wyoming has no state tax incentives or rebates for solar. But for Kane, and many others, the biggest barrier in Wyoming is net-metering. Basically, that’s a limit on how much solar power any residential or commercial operation can generate. In Wyoming, the cap is 25 kilowatts. That’s not much, especially for a business.
Kane explained, "say Walmart, Target stores, all over the country are putting solar on their roofs to offset the energy they’re using. A building like that will often put up 2 to 400 kilowatts at a time to offset energy use. In Wyoming, they’d be limited to only 25."
Albany County legislator Cathy Connolly tried to double that number last year to 50, but the bill died. In Idaho, the cap is 100 kilowatts. In New Mexico, it's 80 megawatts - the highest in the country. Kane said solving this problem would quickly make Wyoming more attractive for solar developers.
“If that cap were lifted say a Walmart or a data center, could invest in solar generation system on their own roof to offset their own energy use,” he said.
But not everyone wants to open the door for solar: lobbyists in the utilities industry, for example. Cheyenne Representative Dan Zwonitzer, chairman of the House Corporations, Elections and Political Subdivisions committee which deals with utilities-related issues, explained that aversion has to do with Wyoming’s low electricity rates. The more who opt for solar means fewer folks paying for traditional electricity and potentially raising the rates for everyone else.
“Nobody wants to pay more for power than they should be.” Zwonitzer said, “that’s the underlying threat to the-every-customer in what they’re paying now."
Beyond utilities lobbyists, there’s also those involved in the state’s other energy sources, who Zwonitzer said, might oppose solar for the same reasons they oppose wind.
“Some legislators and a large portion of citizenry involved in extractive industries feel renewable can be a threat to their existing line of work,” he said.
Either way, it’s kind of a non-issue for now. Solar just hasn’t come up much at the Wyoming legislature and part of that is because the energy isn't fully economical yet. Zwonitzer said, soon, that could change. In the past five years, solar prices have gone down 52 percent in Wyoming. Zwonitzer said when it’s clear solar is a competitive power source, you can expect legislature to get involved.
Back at the regional airport near Rock Springs, Devon Brubaker pointed east and said, “it's just out… see there's an old school bus in the field."
If Brubaker has his way, that 600-acre open field on airport property could one day be home to Wyoming’s next utility-scale solar facility. He said, if the Sweetwater Solar Energy Facility works out, it would be a much easier sell.