As Wind Power Lifts Wyoming’s Fortunes, Coal Miners Are Left in the Dust
GILLETTE, Wyo. — After Kullin Orcutt lost his job at the Peabody coal mine this spring, he knew what he needed to do: join the exodus. “Leave Gillette, leave the state,” he said.
Mr. Orcutt is a third-generation miner and one of 592 coal workers who have been laid off here since January. Thousands more job cuts are expected this summer.
More people will follow Mr. Orcutt. While many businesses in Gillette are struggling to stay open, a U-Haul dealer has been nearly sold out since the school year ended this month.
But 200 miles to the southwest, in Carbon County, where Wyoming’s first coal mine opened a century ago, the mood is different. The last coal mine closed a decade ago, but the county may soon be home to the largest wind farm in North America, if not the world.
“Coal is hurting, but wind power is our bright spot on the horizon,” said Cindy Wallace, the director of the Carbon County Economic Development Corporation. “Eventually, we could be the wind capital of Wyoming, the U.S., the world.”
In Wyoming, the country’s biggest coal-producing state, the energy landscape is transforming along with the nation’s, but in a state of 584,000 people, that change is happening at hyperspeed.
That transition has left men like Mr. Orcutt behind. The new positions and financial opportunities offered by wind and other new-energy industries are not replacing all the jobs going up in coal smoke.
Many of the current jobs are out of state, at wind turbine factories in Colorado and Iowa. Millions of dollars’ worth of out-of-state investments are flowing into Wyoming’s wind projects, but much of the profit will flow out of state, as well. The thousands of coal workers who will probably lose their jobs do not necessarily have the technical skills to operate wind farms. In any case, new wind jobs will number in the hundreds, not the thousands.
So when Mr. Orcutt left Gillette this spring, he did not head for the wind fields of Carbon County. Instead, he moved to Shelby, Mont., for a job at a privately run prison, leaving behind his wife and son in a groaning two-bedroom apartment that they share with Mr. Orcutt’s sister, her husband — a welder who was laid off from the coal mines — and that couple’s three children.
“It’s hard being here without them, but here I have a job,” he said. “In Gillette, those jobs are gone forever.”
The numbers bear out his decision, said Robert W. Godby, an energy economist and professor at the University of Wyoming.
“Wind energy is certainly lucrative,” he said. “That’s why so many investors are interested. But it doesn’t create nearly the economic impact of the fossil fuel industry.”
Today, about 66 percent of the electricity in the United States is produced by coal and natural gas, and just 7 percent is produced by renewable sources such as wind and solar. But market forces and government regulations are rapidly changing that picture.
A glut of inexpensive natural gas has cut into coal’s dominance of America’s power market. And President Obama’s climate change regulations, known as the Clean Power Plan, take direct aim at coal, the No. 1 cause of planet-warming greenhouse gases.
The Department of the Interior has already declared a halt on new coal mining on public lands, a move with an outsize impact on Wyoming, where a majority of mines are on federal property.
And the international Paris agreement on climate change could make the efforts to end the burning of coal a global campaign.
All of these policies are closing the remaining coal-fired plants and freezing the construction of new ones, but they also aim to aggressively increase the production of renewable power. The Clean Power Plan contains a goal for 20 percent of the nation’s electricity to come from wind, solar and other clean sources by 2030. Hillary Clinton, the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee, has pledged to raise that amount to 33 percent by 2027.
Companies from around the world are looking to Wyoming’s wind to meet that demand.