"Future of Solar" Event Asks: What's Holding Solar Energy Back In Wyoming?

May 18, 2018

Panel at the "Future of Solar" event with Cheyenne Representative Dan Zwonitzer on the left
Credit Cooper McKim / Wyoming Public Radio

Legislators, businesspeople, and residents came together in Laramie Wednesday to discuss the future of solar energy in Wyoming. The event was organized by the Powder River Basin Resource Council and the Wyoming Outdoor Council.

The beginning of the event brought some solar energy facts through a trivia section. For example, the cost of installing solar is decreasing. The number of jobs in solar is increasing. Wyoming has a similar potential for solar generation to Arizona — in other words: high.

Still, many don’t think Wyoming has enough solar power. The state does not have any utility-scale solar generation. Laramie Representative Cathy Connolly said on a panel that regulation is also a barrier. Wyoming has a net-metering limit of 25 kilowatts for a given home or facility. That’s not huge. Net-metering is when excess power generated from solar panels transfers to the grid, offsetting the cost of utilities. Connolly brought up legislation in 2017 trying to double that number to 50 kW. But she and others mentioned solar's powerful opponent: utility companies.

“If what we want is to make this more of a friendly environment for having solar capacity in the state, then we are going to need to sit down at the table with the utility companies.” She said, “and we need to sit down with them as friends and think about what is necessary in order to kind of meet that common objective."

Cheyenne Representative Dan Zwonitzer explained utility companies see solar power as a threat. When someone switches to solar from a regular utility, that means one fewer customer for that company, said Zwonitzer, and potentially higher electricity rates for everyone else.

"The long-term effects of trying to keep all of the utilities who give all of you power in the state is trying to keep costs low across the grid and if you have individuals jumping off the grid, everybody else is affected. Usually negatively,” Zwonitzer said.

Zwonitzer added many legislators see solar as a direct attack on coal. Local businesspeople in the solar industry say they would like to see better financing for individuals interested in installation. They say the upfront costs may be decreasing, but are still high.