The words, “economic diversification,” are on the lips of many Wyoming residents these days, as they ask whether and how the state can regain its stride as coal continues to struggle. Across the U.S., while power plants have shifted from coal to less expensive and less carbon-intensive natural gas and renewable energy, markets for Wyoming’s coal have begun to disappear. Coal’s slide has depleted state coffers and miners’ pension funds, eliminated jobs in the mines and the coal supply chain, and hastened the exodus of young people from our state.
Other carbon-related communities around the world, in China, India, Germany, South Africa, and elsewhere, also struggle with these changes. But neither is coal in a global context about to roll over and play dead. According to the International Energy Agency, global demand for coal to power global economies will remain steady for decades to come. Future projections show that global economies will urbanize through heavy dependence on coal, while at the same time also investing increasingly in renewable energy.
Coal is not just an industry – as the late Wilson resident and former Casper mayor Jim Barlow used to say, it is a way of life. Those who have defined themselves by this way of life for generations will fight to keep it.
Former Governor Matt Mead’s Commission on Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming (ENDOW) Commission started much needed processes to come to terms with these realities. We need to redouble these efforts, thinking strategically about our traditional strengths, and building the human capital for the industries of the future.
In our traditional strength, energy, Wyoming has an opportunity to lead globally in climate and industries of the future with opportunities in carbon capture, such as carbon, capture, utilization and storage, and direct air capture. Climate modeling increasingly reinforces that to meet climate change goals, in addition to full-scale deployment of energy efficiency and renewable energy technologies, widescale mobilization of carbon capture technologies will be crucial at a global scale.
Diversification also means hedging our bets. Within the transportation sector, the impending shift to electric vehicles seems to be a foregone conclusion. But huge obstacles in electricity storage remain, and the technology itself can be no more greenhouse-gas friendly than the fuel source on which it depends. If the power source remains a coal-fired power plants, that just shifts the problem back to the stationary source of pollution.
In a process that reverses the high school experiment of electrolysis, by contrast, a fuel cell combines oxygen from the air with hydrogen that can be derived from the gasification of coal to generate an electric current right from the vehicle itself, releasing only water through the tailpipe. This transportation technology seems eminently suited to Wyoming’s comparative advantages. Compressed natural gas (CNG) vehicles are another transportation option suited to Wyoming’s advantages, by means of which it could help the nation to hedge its clean energy transportation bets.
But if 40% of the nation’s coal market has made Wyoming the “Saudi Arabia of Coal,” an even greater opportunity beckons in wind power. The National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) of the U.S. Department of Energy estimates that 50% of the highest quality land-based wind in the country is located in Wyoming. California needs this wind power to meet its Renewable Portfolio Standard (RPS) of 100% renewable energy by 2045. If we organize ourselves, we can not only generate and transmit this power, but also attract manufacturers of wind power equipment here to Wyoming. Increased wind power capacity, in turn, can help attract industries in IT (e.g., data centers), retail (Walmart), and other sectors which are committed to carbon-neutral operations.
All these technologies provide innovation opportunities for Wyoming within our traditional strength - energy. Harnessed to a long-term strategy, they can mobilize new human, natural, and financial resources and become growth engines for our communities and change agents for the global environment.