There is truth to the idea that renewables are beginning to rival fossil fuels, even in Wyoming. Coal still accounts for 24 percent of the energy consumed in the US (and Wyoming coal for about 11 percent). But wind and other renewable sources are catching up, in large part because their cost is coming down. Wind, the fastest-growing source of renewable energy in the US, now compares favorably to both coal and natural gas. According to a 2019 analysis conducted by the financial advisory firm Lazard, coal costs between $66 and $152 per megawatt-hour of electricity generated, natural gas costs between $44 and $68, and wind is between $28 and $54.
One reason costs have come down over the years is that turbine technology has steadily improved. Blade heads with sensors and 360-degree rotation can make the most of wind coming from any direction. Turbines have also grown taller and their blades longer; taller towers help in some regions, like the Southeast, by lifting the mechanism above the tree line, and bigger blades draw in more air. Both improvements mean you can generate energy more efficiently in places where the wind isn’t blustery. There are more advancements coming. Companies are working on even bigger offshore turbines and modular components for turbine blades, which would make the parts easier to transport on smaller roads and through denser cities.
Another reason renewables are becoming more competitive is that states are swearing off fossil fuels. In 2015, Hawaii became the first state to make a 100 percent renewables pledge. California was second, announcing in 2018 that the state would get all of its energy from climate-friendly sources by 2045. Other states—New Mexico, New York, Nevada, Washington—have since committed to transitioning to renewables. Some public utilities and large technology companies such as Google and Microsoft are making similar pledges.
In January, the US Energy Information Administration, which crunches energy statistics, forecast that all renewable energy would produce more of the country’s electricity by 2050 than any other form of energy, much more than nuclear and coal and a bit more than natural gas.
That projected increase, from 19 percent to 38 percent of electricity production, assumes no new policies, regulations, or breakthrough technologies. In other words, wind and solar prices are now competitive enough to thrive without subsidies. (And just in time. After Congress passed a one-year extension late last year, the tax credit that the federal government has offered to companies to build wind projects will expire on January 1, 2021.)
All these changes in the engineering and economics of renewable energy have, taken together, begun to overcome the drag imposed by Wyoming’s taxes. The incentives are just that strong. PacifiCorp is moving forward with plans to add nearly 2,000 megawatts of Wyoming wind as early as 2024 while also retiring a few of its coal-fired power plants early. “We made a big bet on Wyoming back in the ’60s and ’70s” when coal was booming, says company spokesperson Spencer Hall, referring to a time when PacifiCorp invested heavily in coal-fired power plants. “And now we’re betting on Wyoming again.”
Another closely watched enterprise is making an even bigger wager on the state. Backed by Denver billionaire Phil Anschutz, an entity known as Power Company of Wyoming has set out to build one of the largest wind farms in the country. Unlike PacifiCorp, which is a utility with a built-in customer base, the Chokecherry and Sierra Madre Wind Energy Project, as the project is known, will sell its power to utilities and private customers.
It’s a massive undertaking: The farm’s 896 turbines will double the amount of wind generation capacity in the state. It took eight years for Anschutz’s company to get environmental and other clearances, but the first turbines are expected to go up sometime in 2022, with the whole project completed by 2026. At that point the only problem will be how the heck to get all that energy captured from Wyoming’s troposphere into the laptops, light bulbs, and Teslas that need it.