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 when thinking about the global future of coal, we would also do well to note that reports of its death are “greatly exaggerated,” to borrow from Mark Twain. 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 Gov. Matt Mead’s Commission on Economically Needed Diversity Options for Wyoming 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.
Strategic approaches to economic diversification start with building from existing strengths. Wyoming knows energy. Climate modeling indicates the need to include carbon capture, storage and utilization, as well as direct air capture, in any long-term climate action portfolio. As the late Gen. Richard Lawson, former president of the National Mining Association, said, “the U.S. needs to develop carbon capture, utilization and storage, take it over to China, and share it with them as our contribution to peace in the first half of the 21st century.” Wyoming’s political leadership is right to seize the global market for the development, testing and deployment of these technologies.
At the same time we need to start thinking outside the box of our traditional energy strengths. As a state that ships 93% of the coal it mines to out-of-state markets — and then sends half the electricity generated in-state from the remaining 7% by wire to other out-of-state markets — we need to recognize there are enormous opportunities in transportation and transmission.
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 plant, that just shifts the problem back to the stationary source of pollution.
Fuel cells, on the other hand, can be stored in a vehicle to make it its own generator of electricity. In a process that reverses the high school experiment of electrolysis, they combine oxygen drawn from the air with hydrogen produced through coal gasification to generate an electric current. Other options building on Wyoming’s natural advantages, and helping the nation hedge its clean energy transportation bets, include compressed natural gas vehicles.
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 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 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 tech (e.g., data centers), retail (Walmart) and other sectors that 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.