wyoming top energy producer

How Wyoming Could Preserve Its Status as a Top Energy Producer

Wyoming is the land of cowboys, but also of miners. But even the “coal state” of the USA is gradually turning to other types of energy – albeit sometimes reluctantly. Current satellite images show how.

“Economy from above” is a collaboration between WirtschaftsWoche and LiveEO. This is a translation of the original article written in German by Matthias Hohensee. Access the original article here.

Cheap energy drives the economy. Two of the best-known billionaires in the U.S. – Bill Gates and Warren Buffett – believe it will stay that way. In the next thirty years, global demand for electricity alone is expected to double, driven by a flood of electrical devices, data centers, electric cars and trucks, homes heated by electricity, among other things. How is this hunger to be satisfied if humanity is to simultaneously phase out fossil fuels?

In the small town of Kemmerer in southwestern Wyoming, Gates and Buffett are presenting an answer. Technology from the past century is to provide cheap energy for this century. The two friends and bridge partners are financing a nuclear power plant there through the company Terrapower. Not a conventional one, in which the fuel rods are cooled with water. But a so-called liquid salt reactor, in which the nuclear fuel is mixed with salt, which cools it at the same time. In contrast to a traditional reactor, the reaction can be better controlled, and a core meltdown is unlikely. The plant also runs under normal pressure, which reduces complexity and thus construction costs. “Nuclear power thus becomes even safer and more economical,” Gates advertises. Whether it works that way remains to be seen. In the past, one of the problems with experimental plants was that the salt attacked the reactor shell. Terrapower, therefore, uses liquid sodium instead of liquid salt, which is less aggressive.

The planning phase will start early next year, with the reactor to be in place by 2028 at the latest and then converted into a commercial plant if everything goes smoothly. It would be the first liquid salt nuclear power plant in the USA. But it’s not just the project that’s interesting. But rather that there is no resistance to it in the community of Kemmerer, which has 2750 souls. On the contrary: “We’re thrilled,” says Mayor Bill Thek. In fact, three other Wyoming communities had courted the billion-dollar project. The nuclear plant will be built next to the Naughton Generating Station, which is scheduled to be decommissioned by 2025. The coal mining pit and power plant are seen in LiveEO’s satellite image. So the infrastructure to distribute the electricity is already in place. Mayor Thek, a former police officer, hopes that the jobs lost to the power plant will not only be replaced by the Terrapower plant but that its construction will boost the local economy.

naughton power plant
Naughton power plant, Kemmerer, Wyoming, USA
27.05.2021: Here, next to the Naughton power plant and a coal mine in the small town of Kemmerer, the nuclear test reactor of Bill Gates’ company Terrapower is to be built.

Needed. Wyoming is in trouble because of the climate crisis. Demand for its most important natural resource – coal – is falling. Jobs and tax revenues are disappearing with the black gold.

Mark Gordon, the governor of Wyoming, also hopes to get out of this jam with nuclear power. Wyoming is to remain what it has been for decades: the most reliable energy supplier in the USA.

Endless expanses, prairie, rivers, canyons, national parks, buffalo, bison, wild mustangs, campfires and cowboys – that’s how Wyoming markets itself to tourists. The name of the state is said to come from the language of the Algonkin Indians and means something like “Great Plains.

“Where the wealth is not only above the ground but also below it,” one might add. And it’s in the form of coal, gas, and oil. What the Ruhr region once was for the Federal Republic of Germany, Wyoming still is for the United States: a coal chamber of the United States. The state from which forty percent of the coal is used to generate electricity in the United States comes. Most of it is mined in the Powder River Basin, a region that runs through Wyoming and Montana.

The vast coal reserves, much of it close to the earth’s surface and so easy to mine, have been developed for 140 years. Wyoming coal had its heyday in the 1980s. 38,500 people worked in mining in 1981. Since then, things have steadily gone downhill. Ten years ago, the number had dwindled to just 7000. Currently, there are only about 4400 left, with about 8000 additional jobs in other industries hanging on.

It’s not just because coal mining is largely automated and the boom in oil and gas production has created tough competition. The state can still boast of being the largest coal producer in the USA. But Wyoming is running out of customers. Last year, 230 million tons of coal were produced in the Powder River Basin. Three years ago, the figure was almost 500 million tons.

Many coal-fired power plants in the U.S. have been mothballed or converted to natural gas over the past twenty years. About 24 percent of U.S. electricity demand is generated from coal, up from nearly 50 percent 15 years ago.

At the moment, demand for coal is picking up again slightly because prices for natural gas and oil are rising. But in the long term, coal remains frowned upon because of the Biden administration’s climate plans. “The less coal that’s bought by power generators, the less we produce and the more it depresses sales,” says Travis Deti, executive director of Wyoming’s mining association.

Exports to Asia, which Governor Gordon wanted to boost, are being held back by the federal government in Washington, as well as by the West Coast states through whose ports the shipment passes. “We feel like hostages here,” Gordon complains.

Yet Wyoming is blessed with another resource that can be converted into energy in a climate-friendly way: Wind, which sweeps reliably and strongly across the vastness of the state. And a lot of lands; Wyoming is the most sparsely populated state in the United States. It has only 578,000 inhabitants in an area about 3.5 times the size of Bavaria. So there’s plenty of room for wind farms.

Glenrock, Wyoming, USAWarren Buffett
Glenrock, Wyoming, USA
24.06.1994 (left photo): Coal used to be mined here in Glenrock.
02.08.2021 (right picture): Warren Buffett and the energy company PacifiCorp built a wind farm on the now-closed coal mine in 2008.

When PacifiCorp, the utility that is part of Warren Buffett’s Berkshire Hathaway empire, began building a large wind farm in Glenrock in 2008, it was thoughtfully built right on top of the former Dave Johnston coal mine, satellite imagery shows. A first in the U.S. The site was also intended to serve as a symbol that something new could be built on the site of an old industry, bringing secure jobs and prosperity. Glenrock was supposed to bring a wind power boom. Today, the wind farm is home to 79 turbines. There is also the neighboring Rolling Hills Wind Farm with another 79 wind turbines. Together, they offer 236 megawatts on 5700 hectares.

Glenrock was meant to be a departure. It turned out differently. Coal is as much a part of Wyoming culture as cowboys. It has brought good-paying jobs. About half of the state’s tax revenue comes from extracting coal, oil, and gas. Suspicion about wind power is high. Wind farms, the fear goes, run largely automatically once built, so they bring few jobs.

Moreover, despite nearly a century and a half of mining, Wyoming’s earth still holds vast coal reserves – 42 billion tons that can be mined directly. And around 1.4 trillion tons that could still be tapped. Renewable energies are therefore perceived by many residents as the enemy, not as an opportunity.

For a long time also by the state politicians. A tax was levied on wind power, pointing out that coal mines are not pretty to look at, but wind farms also disfigure the landscape. And because they didn’t want to further restrict demand for the already beleaguered coal, tax breaks for building wind farms were rescinded to “restore fairness.”

While wind farms sprouted up in Texas, Nevada, and California over the past decade thanks to incentives, many wind power investors gave Wyoming a wide berth. Despite its ideal geographic conditions, the state ranks only 16th nationally in the number of wind turbines installed.

But because of the sheer need for renewable energy, Biden’s multi-billion dollar infrastructure program, and the requirement for pension funds to invest in the green industry, the state so blessed with wind is now coming back into focus.

  • Ekola Flats Windfarm
  • Ekola Flats Windfarm
  • Ekola Flats Windfarm

Two hours’ drive south of the pioneering Glenrock facility is the brand new Ekola Flats Wind Farm, also owned by PacifiCorp. Sixty-three General Electric and Vestas turbines are expected to deliver 250 megawatts. It is one of six new wind farms from the power company scheduled to come online by 2024.

To be sure, Wyoming’s capital, Cheyenne, doesn’t want to give up on coal. “We are promoting plants that can capture and store carbon dioxide, and we have high hopes for them,” says John Barrasso of the Republican Party, who represents Wyoming in the U.S. Senate. But it will now be joined by other technologies to ensure that Wyoming remains the most reliable energy supplier in the United States. Nuclear power – but also wind power.

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