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Wyoming's future depends on moving away from coal-and toward renewables

By Connie Wilbert

We all know that Wyoming's coal industry is being challenged by the steadily dropping price of clean energy options, like wind and solar. But we recently saw more proof that this trend has reached a milestone that should get our attention.

A study from Lazard, a widely respected international finance and asset management firm, found that not only are new wind farms cheaper than new coal plants—they're often cheaper than operating existing coal plants.

This reinforces the findings of a similar study done last year that found at least half of PacifiCorps' coal fleet—including the Jim Bridger, Wyodak, and Naughton plants in Wyoming—are more expensive to run than building a new wind farm from scratch. With utilities required by law to give their customers the cheapest available power, it's increasingly hard to see how many of these coal plants can survive in the coming years.

With Wyoming's state budget highly dependent on coal revenues and thousands of workers in the industry, this news should be a wake-up call to all of us. It's time to transition our economy away from a coal industry in permanent decline and make sure that workers have a path forward as market forces move the world away from coal power.

Why is it so important that state leaders make transition a priority? Recently we've seen numerous examples of what happens when coal executives are left in charge.

Westmoreland Coal Company, which runs the Kemmerer Mine that feeds the Naughton coal plant in Lincoln County, recently declared bankruptcy, but not before paying eight of its executives more than $10 million in bonuses first. Now the company is rushing forward with a bankruptcy process, and retired miners' health care could be on the chopping block.

The story is much the same at Cloud Peak Energy, which operates the Antelope and Cordero Rojo mines. The debt-ridden company's executives are exploring a sale while getting bonuses equal to an extra year of salary just weeks after cutting off retired miners' health care benefits. As a retired miner told the Gillette News Record, "The big dog gets theirs, and the little dog gets none."

Wyoming residents can be forgiven for a feeling of déjà vu, as this is exactly how things played out during the numerous coal company bankruptcies in 2015—big pay bumps to corporate executives, cuts to worker pensions and health care, and little leadership from the state to guide us toward a more sustainable economic future.

While there is no simple answer for how to keep Wyoming's economy moving forward as the coal industry declines, there are several things we can demand of our state legislators.

First, it's time to stop standing in the way of wind power. After years of lagging behind our neighbors, wind power is starting to take off in Wyoming, garnering more than $3 billion in investment in the state in recent years, according to the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA).

And we're just scratching the surface of our immense potential. When we carefully site wind development, we can protect Wyoming values and benefit Wyoming workers and communities.

Unfortunately, wind developers say Wyoming's unique wind tax—the only one in the country—often tilts the scales toward neighboring states. State legislators repeatedly have threatened to raise wind taxes, increasing uncertainty in this rapidly growing industry.

Wind farms contribute to our economy through property taxes, sales taxes, and construction and maintenance jobs—putting up extra barriers isn't helping us build tomorrow's energy jobs.

Secondly, Wyoming can do more to support younger workers and displaced miners who want to get into the growing wind energy business. More than 100,000 people now work in wind and over 260,000 in solar nationwide, and these are two of the fastest growing industries in the country. Supporting more wind energy technician training programs, like the one at Laramie County Community College, and doing more to make Casper a center for wind energy manufacturing will ensure Wyoming gets its share of those jobs.

Wyoming doesn't have control over the market forces driving out-of-state utilities toward cleaner, cheaper electricity choices. But we can control how we respond to these changes by embracing growing energy industries and prioritizing our workers over executives.

Connie Wilbert is a Laramie resident and the director of Sierra Club Wyoming Chapter.