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Leery Lawmakers Grapple With Growing Renewables

A map showing the capacity for solar (U.S. Annual Solar GHI) energy in Wyoming.

There were only six bills centered on renewables this session, but you'd be forgiven to think there were many more. Even when it wasn't the topic of conversation, renewables were on lawmaker's minds.
"The people in the United States are going to wake up to the fact that we cannot operate our grid with solar and wind power only," said Lyman Rep. Danny Eyre in a conversation about coal.

Gillette Rep. Scott Clem brought up renewables as well in talks about coal. He pointed to its unfair advantage due to federal subsidies.

"A lot of the sentiment in the capital seems to be not embracing [renewables] but trying to put up roadblocks."

"It's just not a level playing field when you talk about traditional fossil fuels compared to green energy," he said.

Renewables are part of the conversation because wind and solar have grown significantly in the past few years with all but 13 states committed to consuming additional renewable energy. Wyoming is uniquely situated to produce it, and is known for its high quality wind and solar energy.

While there's already plenty of wind turbines on the ground, developers are on track to triple Wyoming's current win power generation. Rocky Mountain Power's long-term energy plan also looks at major new solar development. Renewable companies including NextEra testified in committee that it was poised to invest a lot of money in solar in the state.

Lawmakers said they need to respond to that growth -- to properly regulate solar, impose new taxes, have a system to dispose of old turbine blades. Lander Sen. Cale Case said the state is starting to figure out these issues.

"These are significant changes to Wyoming's landscape, our economy, we don't get much of taxes out of either one of those kinds of energy production. We've enjoyed a lot of taxes out of the minerals we produce to make electricity previously," he said. "We have to come to grips with all this figured out."

The tenor of the legislation did not seem particularly positive for renewables to Tom Darin, senior director of western state affairs for the American Wind Energy Association.

"A lot of the sentiment in the capital seems to be not embracing that but trying to put up roadblocks," he said.
"It's unfortunate. I think we have a huge opportunity to really help with what Wyoming needs the most right now, in diversifying its economy."

The bills were not about helping the industry get its foot in the door as renewable advocates may have wanted. Instead, they respond to renewables inevitable arrival. There was a bill that sought to ban wind turbine blades from being disposed of in a landfill. There was another to regulate solar through the Industrial Siting Act because it sat on a trona deposit, thereby blocking it; the bill expanded to add regulation on wind. Another sought to place a generation tax on solar, as is already in place for wind.

That last bill was worrisome to George Hruska, business development manager with Oftedal Construction out of Casper, who said solar poses a big job opportunity for construction workers. He said the proposal to create a generation tax leads to uncertainty for companies choosing where to set up shop.

"These large, very large developers that have these billions of dollars to spend - are they gonna want to come here to an uncertainty? Or go to Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, where they're being welcomed with open arms. Wyoming's not doing that," he said.

For a very long time, minerals have provided the majority of Wyoming's revenue with several billion dollars in revenue annually. With the precipitous drop in coal production and volatility in oil and gas, minerals have fallen from once 70 percent of state revenue down to around 50.

Cheyenne Rep. Dan Zwonitzer said renewables could be our energy future and that a solar tax isn't about being anti-renewable. Wyoming just needs money as coal, oil and gas all falter.

"We've got to make up that revenue somewhere. Right now, we're making that up by taking a quarter of a billion dollars out of our rainy day funds. And that's unsustainable long term," he said.

The bill didn't pass.

Another did though, that puts a regulatory structure in place for new solar projects while creating additional regulation for wind. Casper Sen. Charlie Scott said it clarified the negatives of renewables.

"We're developing a major problem, every energy source there is has a downside to it. It's instructive. If you go look at that solar farm that is over northwest of Green River. That precludes all other use of that land and it's big: 700 acres for 80 megawatts. That's a lot of land for not that much power. We need to get control of that."

Sen. Cale Case said all these bills may connect to some animosity towards renewables.

"There is a bit of that. There are members and people in Wyoming that are angry about what's happened to coal and don't believe that it's truly justified," he said.

Other legislators disagreed saying the current legislation is not about animosity.

Two out of the six bills affecting renewables passed through both houses including one that allows decommissioned wind turbine parts to be buried in coal mines.

Meanwhile, the second largest coal-producing state in West Virginia is also struggling to diversify its economy and it passed a pro-solar bill.

"Just the idea two or three years ago that we would pass it tax break for solar, you know, I would have laughed at you," said West Virginia Delegate Evan Hansen, a democrat.

He said businesses have approached the state's Department of Commerce expressing interest in West Virginia, but wanted to ensure access to solar energy. Hansen said maybe that will help fill the gap left by coal.

"I don't see any way that we're going to make that up other than by bringing new jobs, including new non energy jobs into West Virginia. And if making solar available is going to allow us to get those new jobs in West Virginia, then people are finally saying that that's a necessary step," he said.

For 2020, the budget session is wrapped up, but Wyoming lawmakers agree this session just scratched the surface in its response to renewables.

Have a question about this story? Contact the reporter, Cooper McKim, at cmckim5@uwyo.edu.

Before Wyoming, Cooper McKim has reported for NPR stations in Connecticut, Massachusetts, and South Carolina. He's reported breaking news segments and features for several national NPR news programs. Cooper is the host of the limited podcast series Carbon Valley. Cooper studied Environmental Policy and Music. He's an avid jazz piano player, backpacker, and podcast listener.
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