© 2024 WEKU
Lexington's Radio News Leader
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations
Update: We now have $60,000 to go to meet our annual fundraising goal by June 30. You can help WEKU cross the finish line with your support! Click here to make your donation. Thank you!!

Why a town on the front line of America's energy transition isn't letting go of coal

The coal power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, owned by Rocky Mountain Power, is scheduled to be decommissioned next year.
Kirk Siegler
/
NPR
The coal power plant in Kemmerer, Wyoming, owned by Rocky Mountain Power, is scheduled to be decommissioned next year.

KEMMERER, Wyo. — A few weeks before Christmas last year, Cliff Green, a mechanic at the Black Butte Coal mine in southern Wyoming, received the dreaded pink slip, after four years of steady work.

Green is 47 with a dry sense of humor. In a black Carhartt hoodie, his big hands are swollen from years of hard work.

"They laid us off the Monday morning after they let us work our night shift, so... that was fun," he says.

Those layoffs got a lot of attention. Especially from the outside, it looked like just the latest signal that Wyoming is ill-prepared for the reality that coal is going away. Eleven coal power plants in the state are set to be decommissioned or converted to natural gas in the next 15 years.

One view is that Wyoming, built on fossil fuels and long one of America's top energy producing states, with major wind and solar projects coming online, is on the front lines of America's transition to lower carbon energy.

But another view is that demand for electricity in America is surging and it's too soon to write off coal.

"I foresee that coal's gonna come right back around," Green says. "That's what I think. But maybe I'm foolish."

Coal jobs also tend to pay a lot more, at least right now, than work in the solar or wind industry, he says. And anyway, most of those are just initial construction jobs.

"They think they can change something that doesn't really need to be changed as far as I'm concerned. If it's been this way for a hundred years, why would we change it now?" Green asks.

Wyoming governor is pushing for carbon sequestration

Green's is a pretty common sentiment in Wyoming, the nation's top coal producing state.

"Currently, the country seems to think that if we take coal off the power grid that somehow we're going to do great things for removing CO2 from the atmosphere," said Gov. Mark Gordon, in an interview with NPR.

Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, says the Biden administration is putting up roadblocks when it comes to developing carbon sequestration technologies at coal power plants.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Wyoming Gov. Mark Gordon, a Republican, says the Biden administration is putting up roadblocks when it comes to developing carbon sequestration technologies at coal power plants.

The U.S. has already reduced carbon dioxide emissions from coal by more than half in the past 20 years. But the governor says coal can be cleaner and its CO2 emissions buried underground.

"Here's the frustrating thing about the climate discussion," Gordon says. "People are saying, 'I don't know a coal miner, we can retrain them, they're gonna be better off if we retrain 'em,' and it's somebody else's problem."

It's true that efforts to transition workers from coal to new jobs in lower carbon energy haven't really taken off. But in Gordon's home state, in a little town in the isolated, frozen, southwest corner, that actually could soon change.

Kemmerer is going nuclear

Kemmerer, Wyoming, a town that locals proudly say was built on coal, may be on the cusp of yet another boom now that Terra Power, the renewable energy company owned by billionaire Bill Gates, has chosen it to build its first nuclear power plant.

The pitch is, it should supplement jobs that will soon be lost when the legacy coal power plant here is decommissioned next year.

Kemmerer, in Wyoming's isolated southwest corner, used to be home to dozens of coal mines.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Kemmerer, in Wyoming's isolated southwest corner, used to be home to dozens of coal mines.

"Our agenda isn't to muddy up the planet by any stretch of the imagination. It's to make a living," says Bill Thek, Kemmerer's mayor.

There is already new money showing in the 2,400-resident town in anticipation of the nuclear plant. It's a big deal for a place where, just a few years ago, it felt like the bottom was about to fall out, Thek says.

There are at least two large new housing developments planned as well as a new truck stop and a hotel.

And for the first time in recent memory, new money is pouring into Kemmerer's downtown, where the new Fossil Fuel Coffee Company recently opened, as well as a new modern restaurant and small grocery. Thek also points out a building that will house some new Airbnb units to support an influx of new temporary workers when the nuclear plant breaks ground.

"It keeps people working. It keeps families here and for a little town like ours, keeping your family around is important to us," Thek says.

A source of local pride, a statue of J.C. Penney, who opened up the first location in his department store chain in Kemmerer in 1902.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
A source of local pride, a statue of J.C. Penney, who opened up the first location in his department store chain in Kemmerer in 1902.

When Bill Gates came to town last year, national headlines portrayed Kemmerer as a dying coal town now getting a new lease on life thanks to America's energy transition.

Back in his pickup, driving past where the new housing developments are expected to be built below snowy hillsides, Thek's eyes roll a little at that.

He's worried about the 100 or more coal plant workers who are about to lose their jobs, likely years before the new nuclear plant opens.

"What do you do with these people that you transition away from? Do you, just shut it off?" he asks. "Who supports them? Who supports their families? These green people? No."

Bill Gates' company is promising to retrain coal workers

TerraPower, the Gates company, is planning to break ground on testing sites and a new workforce training facility in Kemmerer later this spring.

CEO Chris Levesque says there's a qualified labor pool at the coal power plant and they're committed to retraining and hiring as many workers as possible.

"That in no way is a burden for us. That, in fact, is an opportunity for us," Levesque says. "Because if you look at how you make electricity in an advanced reactor, it's not that much different from how you make electricity in a coal plant."

But people in Wyoming have heard promises from energy companies before — they don't always pan out. And some locals say they're getting mixed signals about Kemmerer's future.

For instance, the local coal mine that currently supplies the coal plant had filed for bankruptcy just a few years ago. Now the mine is planning to expand and dig for more coal, which would even require the rerouting of a highway outside town. The industry says there are new markets for coal, namely its use in products like fertilizer.

Teri Picerno owns Grumpy's Bar, a longtime popular watering hole in downtown Kemmerer.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Teri Picerno owns Grumpy's Bar, a longtime popular watering hole in downtown Kemmerer.

Teri Picerno, owner of Grumpies, a mainstay bar popular with local coal miners, says there's a lot of speculation and even confusion right now.

"You have people that work at the coal mine, and they're being told that they're looking for more markets, they're going to expand," she says. "But then you have people working at the power plant saying we're just gonna get rid of the coal and go to the nuclear."

Over by the pool tables there are huge Trump 2024 campaign banners. One says "F--- your feelings." No state voted more for Trump percentage-wise in 2020 than Wyoming.

"I don't think anybody's going to do a lot until they know the outcome of the November election," Picerno says.

Laid off coal worker gets new job

So there's still a lot of limbo right now. Except maybe with Cliff Green, the heavy equipment mechanic who lost his job at the coal mine before Christmas. He was recently recruited, not by the nuclear plant, but by the expanding Kemmerer coal mine.

"I wasn't real worried, I mean, I'll do about anything if I have to," Green says "The only people that aren't workin' is the ones that don't want to."

Cliff Green stands by his pickup after a shift at the Kemmerer Coal Mine, where he was grateful to find a new job after being laid off from another nearby mine.
Kirk Siegler / NPR
/
NPR
Cliff Green stands by his pickup after a shift at the Kemmerer Coal Mine, where he was grateful to find a new job after being laid off from another nearby mine.

One recent evening he was picking up a six-pack of Coors at a gas station outside Kemmerer after his shift. His weekend was starting. He says he can't afford to wait or be retrained for nuclear. He's hoping he can at least ride out coal until he retires.

Besides, Green says, the U.S. needs a lot of electricity right now, especially for all the technology like electric cars coming online far before large-scale renewable power projects.

"I don't know if they'll get long-term contracts but I think there's going to be plenty of short-term contracts that's gonna keep them busy."

Copyright 2024 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Kirk Siegler
As a correspondent on NPR's national desk, Kirk Siegler covers rural life, culture and politics from his base in Boise, Idaho.
WEKU depends on support from those who view and listen to our content. There's no paywall here. Please support WEKU with your donation.
Related Content