ROCK SPRINGS — Speakers at a public forum voiced optimism about the future of the energy industry in Wyoming, but they admit the next few years will be a “wild ride” as they make their way forward. Some markets have shifted more quickly than anticipated, and the drivers of
technology and customer preference are changing the way they operate.
Rock Springs Young at Heart hosted the event that attracted company representatives, elected leaders, and curious residents. The stakes are high, as Wyoming relies on energy to keep fueling its businesses and revenue streams.
A majority of listeners raised their hands when Rita Meyer of Rocky Mountain Power asked who had connections to the mining industry.
“It’s hard to live in Rock Springs, Wyoming, and not have a history with the mines,” she said.
She said our quality of life has been earned on the backs of coal miners. Wyoming has long generated more energy than it needs, leading to it becoming a big exporter, and Meyer doesn’t expect that to change. However, industry leaders said that doesn’t mean they won’t have to
adapt to meet new challenges, standards and expectations.
Meyer noted coal long reigned as the king of energy sources, but it has been surpassed by natural gas, and other sources are becoming more aggressively competitive.
“This is not a temporary outcome. This is a structural change,” she said.
PacifiCorp’s Rick Tripp, the managing director of the Jim Bridger Power Plant, said the company annual produces an integrated resource plan, which includes different models to identify potential cost savings. The intent is to aid customers, meet needs and support the electrical grid.
WyoFile.com has reported that PacifiCorp and its 1.9 million utility customers could save $599 million by retiring several coal-fired electrical generating units in Wyoming and elsewhere — including early closures at the Jim Bridger and Naughton plants.
Tripp stressed that the company is committed to keeping workers informed, and different scenarios are being considered.
“It will be October before we know for sure,” he said.
In general, Tripp said change will be needed to meet company goals, including the transition away from coal. This will happen eventually, according to Trapp, and we need to be prepared for it to happen.
Some speakers discussed new ways to combine energy.
“We see a bright future for natural gas going forward,” said Jeff Bybee of Dominion Energy, manager of the region including Wyoming.
He touted natural gas as a great way to fill the gaps to make green energy more reliable and sustainable. He said solar and wind power are great, but the skies aren’t always sunny and winds don’t blow nonstop, so natural gas can keep the lights on in between.
He said the company isn’t looking to divest itself of natural gas, but is doubling and tripling down on its use. Bybee said he thinks it best to use all forms of energy to their most efficient extent.
Dave Caplan of Genesis noted the mineral deposits in the area will create jobs for generations to come.
“We’re grateful to have this as one of the pillars of our economy,” he said. “And we expect that to continue.”
He said soda ash production requires a lot of power, which is why they’re one of the largest energy consumers in the area. In addition to their coal plant, they look to other energy sources as backup.
Rock Springs Chamber of Commerce CEO Rick Lee, who emceed the panel, said the world population is expected to reach 9 billion people by 2040, and he asked panel members if they expect to be able to properly power that world.
“I’m bullish on America and the energy sector,” Meyer said, meaning she is optimistic they will figure out ways to push forward and push out energy.
She said production must adjust to demand. She used the example that you can produce a lot of Oreo cookies, but if people aren’t buying them, your business won’t continue.
In addition to anticipating more advancements in technology, she noted recent developments that have allowed them to “repower” wind turbines. She said they are making them more effective without expanding the environmental footprint, simply by adding new technology to the existing turbines.
Bybee used distant and recent examples to illustrate the speed of innovation. First he pondered how they would have dreamt of the future in the 1800s, debating if they had enough lumber to keep the wood-burning engines running. Then he cited the advances in phone
technology that he’s experienced in his personal lifetime, going from wall-mounted phones with rotary dials to supercomputers that fit in a pocket.
Despite the consistency of change, Bybee noted the company shouldn’t have taken so long to stop thinking like a utility and start thinking like a business. Nonetheless, he said the creativity of the energy industry and the drive from customers will have them looking like the future-set Jetsons.
Rep. John Freeman, D-Green River, joked he was the odd man out on the panel since he wasn’t speaking on behalf of a company. He cited Gov. Matt Mead, who noted in 2010 that Wyoming is the energy state of the nation. Freeman said that is still true today, but the whole energy sector is shifting in ways we didn’t anticipate.
He said he talks to industry experts who have an idea of what to expect 10-15 years from now, but they’re not ready to place a bet just jet.
“It’s going to be a wild ride for awhile,” Freeman said.
As a state, Wyoming relies on coal, oil and natural gas, and if these three shrink, the representative said, “we’re in trouble.”
In addition to betting on technology, he said we need to bet on education, even when it’s hard to make that investment. He added the focus needs to be on more than just test results, because that emphasis does not cultivate creative students.