CASPER — With social issues at the forefront in the Wyoming Legislature, this session has been a quiet one for the energy sector. But several of the year’s most impactful energy bills have made it through their starting chamber and are only a few votes away from the governor’s desk.
Lawmakers’ energy priorities in 2023 — much like years past — include boosting tax revenue from renewables and keeping the state’s coal industry in business.
Bills are still advancing that would tax solar farms at the same rate as wind, curtail repayment for rooftop solar, strengthen carbon capture requirements for coal plants and expand the state’s authority to sue in defense of its coal industry.
Efforts to tax electric vehicle charging, impose an electricity tax on other power sources, repeal existing carbon capture mandates, and refund a portion of oil and gas producers’ federal royalties, meanwhile, have faltered.
Here are where things stand for the energy sector after the first half of the session.
Earning more from electricity
Yet another attempt to tax solar projects larger than residential installations narrowly cleared the House of Representatives and is now awaiting consideration in the Senate.
House Bill 124 would levy the same $1-per-megawatt-hour excise tax on solar power generation that wind farms have paid since 2011.
It’s sponsored by House Speaker Rep. Albert Sommers, R-Pinedale, who also tried to pass a solar tax in 2021, as did the Appropriations Committee in 2020. Those previous attempts failed in the House Revenue Committee.
This year’s bill, however, sailed through the Appropriations Committee, despite opposition from renewable energy developers and the Wyoming Taxpayers Association.
It survived its third reading in the House in a 34 to 28 vote on Feb. 2.
A bill that would sunset how utilities currently credit surplus electricity from rooftop solar panels and instead delegate oversight to the Wyoming Public Service Commission raced even more quickly through the Senate, but has yet to be introduced in the House.
Senate File 92, sponsored by Sen. Cale Case, R-Lander, would let state regulators decide how much utilities should pay solar users for electricity fed back into the grid and give utilities more leeway to add solar-specific charges to those users’ monthly bills.
It would take effect on July 1, 2024, for new customers and by 2039 for existing ones.
According to Case, the bill ensures that the costs of grid maintenance, which are built into electricity rates, don’t fall more heavily on people without rooftop solar.
“If we’re going to have small-customer-generated electricity be sustainable over the long haul — I mean truly sustainable, good for the system, good for the customers — then we have to make these changes,” Case previously told the Star-Tribune.
Many Wyoming residents who have installed rooftop solar — or are considering it — vehemently oppose the bill, as do solar installers and environmental groups.
If the Public Service Commission lowers how much new solar users are credited, it’ll take longer for them to recoup the multi-thousand-dollar investment.
Solar advocates fear the changes will stunt the industry’s growth long before rooftop gains a real foothold in Wyoming — or becomes widespread enough to cause any noticeable imbalance in rates.
“We just don’t see a current issue that needs to be addressed with our net metering policy,” Claire Deuter, renewable organizer for the Powder River Basin Resource Council, previously told the Star-Tribune. “And if it’s not broken, don’t fix it.”
Measures that would supplement Wyoming’s dwindling coal income in other ways — via electric vehicles and out-of-state electricity buyers — were unsuccessful during the session.
House Bill 275, which would’ve created a $0.15-per-kilowatt-hour tax for all electric vehicle charging — more than doubling the typical price of that electricity — was introduced in the House on Jan. 26 after missing the Senate filing deadline.
Its sponsor, Rep. Landon Brown, R-Cheyenne, told the Star-Tribune at the time that the bill needed a lot of work (and set the tax way too high), but started an important conversation about ensuring drivers of electric vehicles, who don’t pay a gas tax, still contribute to the maintenance of Wyoming’s highways.
Alicia Cox, executive director of Yellowstone-Teton Clean Cities, felt similarly.
The Transportation Committee ran out of time to hear the bill.
House Bill 288, introduced a day after HB 275 and sponsored by Rep. Clark Stith, R-Rock Springs, would’ve levied a tax on all of the state’s commercial electricity production, except for sources owned or operated by the state or the federal government.
But it would have refunded state residents for their share of the extra cost, shifting the tax burden to power users outside Wyoming. It, too, died in committee.
Fighting for fossil fuels
Two bills focused on Wyoming’s coal industry are also still winding their way through the Legislature, after versions of both fell short last year.
State lawmakers gave the governor’s office $1.2 million in 2021 to sue other states it believed were threatening the survival of Wyoming’s coal mines or power plants. With much of that money sitting unused, they tried last year to broaden how it could be spent.
The proposal died in the House.
It’s been much more successful this year.
House Bill 69, which would expand existing statute to allow lawsuits over state or federal actions “that result in the decreased use of Wyoming coal or the closure of coal-fired electric generation facilities that use Wyoming coal,” passed the House on Jan. 19 in a vote of 55-5. The bill, sponsored by Rep. Lloyd Larsen, R-Lander, passed the Senate 30-1 and received a concurrence vote Friday in the House, 56-5-1.
It will now head to Gov. Mark Gordon — who has expressed his support for the change.
Senate File 142 has moved through the Senate more slowly, slowed by the time it took to work through state agencies’ concerns about conflicts with existing laws and obstacles to enforcement. It would add extensive new standards to the trio of bills the state has already passed in an effort to slow coal plant retirements and push the use of carbon capture to extend the facilities’ lives.
Senate File 159, from 2019, directs utilities to attempt to sell the facilities before retiring them. House Bill 200, from 2020, lets them shift some of the costs of installing carbon capture to ratepayers. House Bill 166, from 2021, mandates that they prove coal closures won’t harm ratepayers or grid reliability. (Both Rocky Mountain Power and Black Hills Energy are working with the Public Service Commission to begin charging ratepayers for compliance with HB 200.)
Sen. Charles Scott, R-Casper, tried last year to make utilities install carbon capture technology at one or more units of coal plants slated for retirement, but ultimately withdrew that bill.
The bill he’s sponsoring this year — aimed, like last year’s, primarily at saving the Dave Johnston and Jim Bridger plants, in Glenrock and Rock Springs, respectively — would set new requirements for the use of captured carbon dioxide.
It also tries to limit utilities’ ability to reject interested buyers.
It’s undergone a number of substantial changes, including the elimination of provisions that would set bond rates for coal plants — overlapping with the reclamation process that’s already required for public utilities — in an effort to guarantee new buyers wouldn’t be liable for cleanup.
The bill passed the Senate by a vote of 25-6 on Wednesday, despite opposition from environmental groups and Rocky Mountain Power, the state’s largest electric utility and the operator of both Dave Johnston and Jim Bridger.
Other fossil-fuel-focused bills have been less successful.
House Bill 163 — also revived after failing last year — tried to blunt the impacts of higher federal royalty rates on oil and gas companies by refunding some of their state severance taxes.
In 2022, it was speculative; this year, it came in response to a rate hike included in August’s sweeping Inflation Reduction Act. The bill struggled in committee and ran out of time for further consideration in the House.
And House Bill 193, a push led by Rep. Karlee Provenza, D-Laramie, to repeal the state’s existing carbon capture mandate under 2020’s HB 200 and refund unspent money to taxpayers, never made it to the House floor.