Twenty Years In: Climate and Clean Energy Coming to Wyoming

By David Wendt, JHCGA's co-Founder, former President, and Senior Advisor


This piece was first published in the Jackson Hole News and Guide.


Twenty years ago, I alongside co-founders Olivia Meigs, Jonathan Schechter, and Steve Duerr, created an organization that could create breakthroughs in global affairs by bringing people together in Jackson Hole: the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs (www.jhcga.org).


Jackson Hole has always been a place grounded in its pure, natural beauty, and, even back then, the Jackson community identified the need for new approaches that could address climate change. This theme became even more pressing when juxtaposed to the fact that Wyoming was then and is now, the nation’s largest producer of coal, the most carbon-intensive fossil fuel. This reality became our organizational strategic focus: the transformation of global coal-producing regions through win-win climate solutions, creating new models and positive tipping points in global climate action.


Back then, operating in Jackson but trying to get things done in Wyoming in climate, we had to be careful to talk about climate change without talking about climate change. In our efforts to bring Wyoming and China’s Shanxi province together as the world’s largest coal producers, for example, to address the issue of carbon emissions from coal, we had to use words like “responsible coal use.” At that time, whether climate change was even real or not was an ongoing sticking point and to a greater extent than now, a common expression in the state was that the Federal Government was launching a “war on coal”. Back then, the reluctance to see the opportunities for reinvention meant that coal producing communities risked, and still risk, being left behind as new industries went elsewhere. Leaders like the late State Senate President Grant Larson here in Jackson Hole stuck their necks out to provide political support for these efforts, particularly in bringing Wyoming and Shanxi, the globe’s two largest coal-producing regions from the globe’s two largest economies, together in clean energy cooperation efforts.


I’m heartened to see that now, a different wind is sweeping over the plains of Wyoming – the winds of change. New attitudes are emerging about climate change and the role of coal and other energy sources in Wyoming’s global leadership in energy. At the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, we’ve also changed with the next generation now leaning forward in the saddle. Nathan, my son, was elected President by our board in 2021.


The new Natrium small modular nuclear reactor, to be built in Kemmerer on the site of a retired coal-fired power plant, typifies the emergence of these new ideas. If successful, this will be the first prototype of its kind to have demonstrated the feasibility of this technology. As such, it holds the potential to foster the growth of a global market for an industry centered in our state. Meanwhile, Wyoming’s wind power capacity has doubled over the past year and a half, from 1,500 to 3,000 MW, and continues to expand at this rate. The recently announced Project Bison, to be located in Southwest Wyoming, will become the world’s largest direct air capture project - capturing CO2 from the atmosphere and permanently storing it underground.


What makes Wyoming’s current approach to these issues different from the past? In addition to JHCGA’s role which I believe has played a positive part, a larger, state-wide transformation is underway. Governor Mark Gordon has approached the challenge proactively through a coordinated effort involving all state agencies (Wyoming Energy Agency, Wyoming Business Council, UW School of Energy Resources), with an emphasis on innovation and the end-goal of net-zero emissions (“All of the Above, Net Zero”). Members of the state legislature have been open to approaches that combine economic diversification, new industries, and low-carbon emissions, for example by investing in the infrastructure necessary for x factor technologies like carbon capture. Wyoming has started to “think outside the box” to include others in our region (e.g., Idaho National Laboratory with the Natrium reactor; Colorado, New Mexico, and Utah with a proposed new regional hydrogen hub). As a result of the mutual feedback gained through this collaborative process, those involved have been able to discover new possibilities.


Wyoming is increasingly being recognized as the place to launch clean energy businesses. In addition to our low-cost business environment and pro-energy orientation, we have a first-rate workforce. One of the speakers at a recent conference on Wyoming’s energy future was the president of a heavy industrial manufacturing and repair company based (with 150 of its 500 global employees) in Wyoming. He pointed out that Wyoming has a unique asset in its workforce -- a highly-skilled and motivated cadre of “gearheads” (drillers, welders, machinists, and mechanics) doing the heavy lifting with machinery in power plants, the oil patch, and coal mines. These people are so valuable that for his business operations in other parts of the nation and world, he sometimes needs to import them from Wyoming, because he can’t find the local skills. When combined, he says, with the capacity for innovation of an Idaho National Laboratory or a TerraPower, the corporate sponsor of the Natrium project in Kemmerer, “amazing things can happen.”

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These comments reminded me of a recent comment by JH Music Festival director Donald Runnicles, describing his experience of conducting the orchestra as occasionally “going to places I didn’t know I could go.” That is where Wyoming seems to me to be going with its energy policy. This, too, is a creative process, involving cultural, economic, bureaucratic and technological barriers whose crossing, only a few years ago, seemed inconceivable.


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