John Karakoulakis is director of The Western Way.
More than two decades ago, a small group of engineers and geologists in Texas developed a process to produce natural gas from shale rock formations buried thousands of feet below the Dallas-Fort Worth suburbs. That breakthrough would later kickstart an energy boom across the United States — a trend that became known as “the energy transition.”
Natural gas from shale created a domestic energy supply that empowered the United States to break its long-standing reliance on foreign energy sources and drive historical economic growth. Power plants that burned natural gas also made the grid more flexible, supporting a major expansion of renewable sources of electricity like solar panels and wind turbines, which have dramatically come down in price but still need backup when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.
Twenty years later, the United States is on the front end of another energy transition. While traditional energy supplies remain essential to light our homes and power our cars, it is now inevitable that emerging energy technologies will have an increasing role in the U.S. energy supply. To the surprise of many, Wyoming may serve as the epicenter of the next U.S. energy boom.
While Wyoming has the lowest population of any state in the country, it ranks as the third largest energy-producing state in the United States. It continues to serve as a top ten oil and gas producing state and is the nation’s top producer of coal. But Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon will be the first to tell you that a transition to low-carbon energy sources will be an economic opportunity for states that lead with vision and foresight.
More than 20% of Wyoming’s electricity already comes from wind turbines and that number is growing. The state is on track to become a major exporter of wind energy to neighboring states and major urban markets across the West. Based on recent infrastructure investments like the $3 billion TransWest Express transmission line project, Wyoming is better situated than perhaps any other state to lead the next energy transition.
“We know that we don’t have time to waste,” Gov. Gordon said at the June groundbreaking for the 732-mile TransWest line in Rawlins, Wyoming, which succeeded despite fifteen years of federal permitting delays. “We have to move, with diligence, forward to make sure that we address the issue of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere with alacrity, with diligence and with dedication.”
And Wyoming’s pivot to emerging energy sources is not limited to its abundant supply of wind. Recognizing the limitations on weather-dependent sources of energy like wind and solar, Wyoming is also leading specific initiatives to promote additional innovative energy solutions.
Wyoming is hosting a partnership between utility company PacifiCorp and a leading nuclear reactor manufacturer TerraPower, to build its first reactor in Kemmerer, Wyoming — a small town with a coal-fired power plant that is due for retirement in 2025. The closure of the coal plant, without anything to replace it, would devastate the community’s workforce and tax base. The projected $4 billion investment in the new nuclear reactor presents a critical economic opportunity for this Wyoming community. The project is a “game changer,” Gov. Gordon said at the May groundbreaking of the TerraPower project.
As chairman of the Western Governors Association, Gov. Gordon has prioritized Western states taking a leadership role in the areas of carbon capture, utilization and storage, or CCUS, technology to minimize and eventually eliminate carbon emissions from coal, oil and natural gas. The development of this technology would particularly benefit Wyoming based on the state’s rich supply of fossil fuel resources and the critical role this energy source has on the state’s economy.
Gov. Gordon recently explained the economic and environmental benefits carbon capture technologies could have on traditional energy producing states like Wyoming. “Ignoring CCUS as a viable option to decarbonize the grid creates an energy gap. Shuttering coal-fired power plants before alternative resources are fully developed will exacerbate power shortages, brownouts and blackouts, higher fuel costs and higher-priced electricity.”
To the surprise of most Americans, Wyoming has emerged as a leader in the rapidly changing U.S. energy market. Gov. Gordon and other state leaders recognize that supporting a true “all of the above” energy plan will not only improve the climate but has the real potential to unleash a generational economic opportunity for the state.
While so many other state leaders are stuck in neutral, focused on quantifying the actual impacts of climate change, Wyoming is taking action. State leaders like Gov. Gordon are dispatching resources to drive practical solutions that also deliver economic opportunities to businesses and working families. It is a refreshingly pragmatic and positive approach that other key players in the U.S. energy and climate debate should follow.