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COLUMN: Creating energy with nothing

Riding with my friend John in his Nissan Leaf, an electric vehicle, the car made no sound at all. With the windows open you can hear the changing of gears on nearby bicycles, and you can hear the breeze in the branches over the boulevards. We were in his town of Fort Collins, Colorado. John works as a sustainability coordinator for a group of hospitals. He was giving me a tour of solar installations all over town, including new construction with the solar panels built right into the roofs; or rather, the roofs were solar panels.

John said that a lot of this was encouraged by government subsidies, and though that might end soon, the momentum that’s propelling clean energy would probably continue, both because people are committed to it, and costs are coming down really fast. We speculated that if all energy subsidies ended, creating a level playing field, and based on economic performance alone, solar and wind would replace fossil fuels. Oil has been subsidized for over a hundred years! Free-market competition can be really transformative, and it can help to clean the atmosphere, too.

On a recent trip through Utah, Nevada, and California, lots was happening in the way of solar installations. On another trip to the East Coast, wind mills were all over Iowa and Illinois, and there were new solar panels right to the Atlantic Ocean. A lot was happening everywhere, but not as much as you would think in Wyoming, except in the Oil Patch.

Like most people, I’m no expert on how photovoltaic cells, or wind turbines, make electricity. I just know what I can see. When I drive the endless dirt roads out in the Red Desert, or up in the Powder River Basin, I see photovoltaic cells wherever there are gas and oil wells, or on the edges of open-pit coal mines. It’s ironic that the very companies that tell us that their fossil fuels are essential for our way of life, are in fact the most enthusiastic users of the sun, and sometimes wind, to make their remote operations function.

The math is really remarkable. The first thing to understand is that solar and wind technologies are not “types” of energy. They are just technologies. You might say that they make electricity through “magic.” Solar and wind have no use for a lump of coal.

Fossil fuels, on the other hand, are physical, liquid or gaseous things. The prices of these go up and down whether we like it or not. Wyomingites, especially in these last few years, commonly complain that coal, oil, and gas prices are too low, and this is hurting us. In the short term, this is unquestionably true. In the long term, however, if gas, oil and coal prices go up, the financial advantage shifts to solar and wind, which therefore gain in market share. Long term, therefore, loyalty to fossil fuels hurts us.

Fossil fuels have expensive “up-front costs.” Coal is enormously cumbersome; oil and gas are deep underground, and their production may harm our priceless water; and uranium is unspeakably dangerous. Once these are gathered, they must be transported, sometimes far away. Only at that point are they thrown into an enormous furnace to make electricity. Hopefully, pollution is kept at a minimum. Meanwhile, all this up-front cost is avoided with wind and solar, which use “magic.”

All of this, of course, is not to mention that Wyoming will have to produce the kinds of energy that the markets demand, or soon we won’t be selling any energy to anyone. Clean energy mandates, such as in California, are demanding “no-carbon” electricity. We can’t change them. Strong or weak federal regulations may, in the end, be irrelevant.

Much original thought and discussion are needed to fill the gaps in Wyoming’s energy future, and this is urgent because we’re going broke. I don’t have the answers, and it’s evident that this is a wrenching topic for people in Wyoming, whose politicians, likewise, don’t have answers. They are not even trying.

All that I hope to provide is some honesty. At the national level, the approaching politics of denialism and dilution will cause chaos, and not solve problems. I imagine that we will punch a few more holes in the ground. Regulations from the federal government, by way of President Obama, the BLM, the EPA and so forth, have only been a small part of Wyoming’s energy and financial dilemma, and we can’t outperform magic.

(Tom Gagnon is a resident of Rock Springs.)

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