By Bill Sniffin
That 34-minute power blackout during the Super Bowl gave the world a glimpse of the future of how electrical power outages will be occurring in the United States
During the country’s transition from coal for electricity production, there will not be enough power to run things. And there are going to be a lot of things that need power in the next 10 to 15 years.
Wonderful advances have been made in development of batteries (discounting the Boeing 787) and also in ways to power appliances with reduced amounts of electricity. But the big breakthroughs are still decades away.
It is truly incredible how many people in America do not realize where power comes from. They literally think it comes from a socket in the wall.
They also do not understand how much more electricity that can be generated by coal than any other source, including natural gas.
And natural gas is still more efficient than solar or wind, but coal is the behemoth when it comes to being able to generate energy. And the bulk of all coal for energy in the country comes from Wyoming.
It is no secret that Wyoming’s economy is largely based on energy commodities. The two biggest ones are coal and natural gas. The state ranks #1 and #2 in production of those two vital national energy sources.
Lately, both have been involved in price spirals that have put a slight damper on the 21st century boom that has been enjoyed by Wyomingites.
And since our boom is literally fueled by fuel, you would think we would continue to enjoy these good times forever. But there are grim statistics on the horizon.
Domestic coal use has been dropping since the national economic bust of 2008 and, without creating international markets to ship to, the industry will continue see decreases in the amount of coal needed.
There really is an international coal market. For example, India has more than 150 coal-fired plants either under construction or on the drawing board. Every single plant will be fired with coal.
For the past several years, it has been projected that China was bringing on-line a new coal-fired power plant twice a month.
Both India and China have some sources of coal in their own countries, yet their leaders are actively seeking international sources. This means an entire system of transporting coal including ports and railroads to the mines in Wyoming and Montana needs to be expanded.
This is good news for our Wyoming economy. It could be anticipated that despite the fact some one-eighth of the coal-fired plants currently in use in the USA may be turned off in favor of cheap natural gas-powered plants, there still is that international market. Peabody Energy recently predicted in ten years the worldwide demand for coal would grow by a billion tons.
Last year, Gov. Matt Mead and State Rep. Tom Lubnau were in China co-hosting a world coal conference. That was an important step.
The biggest threat to the coal exporting opportunity involves environmentalists in the Northwest. They will have the biggest effect on the future of Wyoming coal being exported.
Some ports are under construction and under protest by folks in Oregon and Washington who hate smelly coal. And they really hate the idea of mile and a half long trains rolling through their countrysides night and day on a never- ending basis.
It is a nightmare scenario to a place that has weaned itself off coal. The last coal-fired plant in Oregon is scheduled to be shut down in 2020. The city of Bellingham, Washington, for example, has hundreds of homes with lawn signs in their yards proclaiming “NO COAL!”
They actually have some legitimate complaints in some areas, and people of good will are trying to work out some compromises.
But it will be a tough sell, especially to the folks who really are trying to think globally. They worry that Wyoming coal will encourage those countries to keep polluting the atmosphere.
That is an international picture.
Back here in the good old USA, we know that the Super Bowl blackout was not caused by a shortage of electricity but rather a faulty piece of equipment. But, power outages typified by that blackout will be occurring more frequently as coal power plants are shuttered and new natural gas plants are slow to replace them.
The future really is now in the energy business. And Wyoming is going to be in the thick of it, one way or another.
Check out Bill Sniffin’s columns and blogs at www.billsniffin.com. He is a longtime Wyoming journalist from Lander who has written four books. His most recent book is “Wyoming’s 7 Greatest Natural Wonders” which is available at www.wyomingwonders.com