Tuesday, April 23

Want to Spur Green Energy in Wyoming? Aim for the Billionaires.

If the area around Jackson, Wyo., boasts two things, they’re natural resources and very rich locals. Nathan Wendt is trying to use the Biden administration’s clean energy incentives to bring the two together.

Mr. Wendt, the president of the Jackson Hole Center for Global Affairs, has spent years working on issues related to climate change and local economic development. And as President Biden pushed one climate-related policy after another through Congress — first the infrastructure law, and then the Inflation Reduction Act — and a dizzying array of tax credits, loans and grants became available, he sensed an opportunity.

“For Jackson Hole investors looking for the next big thing, there’s no need to look beyond state lines,” Mr. Wendt wrote this spring in an opinion essay in The Jackson Hole News & Guide, where he extolled the “flush tax credits” the law provided. “This decade’s great money-making opportunity,” he wrote, “will be in investing in net zero projects in energy communities, including in Wyoming.”

Wyoming is both the nation’s largest coal producer and a Republican stronghold where the clean energy transition has at times faced stark opposition. Its entire congressional delegation voted against the Inflation Reduction Act. But the state is unusually well suited to benefit from some of the green incentives the government is offering.

Wyoming’s geology and legal landscape make it a top candidate for fledgling carbon capture technologies, which the law promotes through sweetened and extended tax credits. Its existing pipeline infrastructure and energy industry work force could help with hydrogen development. And, perhaps most important, the state has plenty of people whom the Inflation Reduction Act is courting — well-heeled investors who are looking for a way to turn a profit off the green energy transition.

The Biden administration’s climate law works by attracting private capital to clean energy. While the plan includes targeted grants, many of its potentially most significant provisions aim to transition the nation’s energy supply — and its energy work force — by luring people with capital to invest. Tax breaks and other incentives mean it’s more attractive to make financial bets on risky, but possibly transformational, green technologies.

That has Mr. Wendt and other climate researchers across the state looking at Jackson, a town full of potential investors who could pour money into new projects. The elite enclave nestled next to Grand Teton National Park boasts the highest-income county in the United States by some measures. And, Mr. Wendt reasons, many of its millionaires and billionaires work in financial markets but decamped from big coastal cities because they loved the natural beauty that Wyoming has to offer.

They might, he figures, have both the money and the motivation to make local climate investment a reality.

“Teton County has been historically disconnected from the wider Wyoming economic story,” Mr. Wendt said on a late August morning in Jackson’s town square, a few yards away from an arch made of elk antlers and a few hundred yards away from a number of wealth management offices. “We’re trying to bridge that gap.”

It’s not just Mr. Wendt who has sensed a profit opportunity. Investors and companies across the country have taken notice. Just since August, about 150 corporations have talked about the Inflation Reduction Act during investor presentations, based on Bloomberg transcripts.

In fact, interest has exceeded expectations. The Congressional Budget Office had at one point forecast that energy and climate outlays tied to the law would total about $391 billion from 2022 to 2031, with more than 60 percent of that coming from claims for various tax credits.

But Goldman Sachs analysts have estimated that the total could be three times that amount, as people and businesses make much heavier use of the incentives than the government expected. That could mean that some $3 trillion pours into green energy investment over the coming decade — $1.2 trillion from the government in the form of tax credits and other incentives, matched by even more in capital from private companies. While their estimates are on the high side, other research groups and the government itself have revised their forecasts upward.

Wyoming, for its part, could be well placed to take advantage of some of the law’s more cutting-edge provisions. Some estimates have suggested that the state could see the largest per capita investment related to the legislation of any state in the nation.

The opportunities are linked to both local policies and local resources, said Scott Quillinan, the senior director of research for the School of Energy Resources at the University of Wyoming.

For instance, the law incentivizes hydrogen development with a new tax credit, making it a much cheaper potential fuel. Wyoming already has pipeline and rail networks that could help transport hydrogen mixtures, Mr. Quillinan said.

The law also expanded a tax credit for what is known as direct carbon sequestration, the process of removing carbon from the air and storing it underground or turning it into new products. Wyoming is home to spongelike rocks filled with pockets of saltwater, which are ideal for storing captured carbon. It is also easier to get the necessary permits to set up such projects in Wyoming than in many other states.

And while it used to be difficult to make cost-intensive direct capture projects pencil out, the law changed that, increasing the credit for directly captured carbon stored in saline rock formations to $180 per ton from $50.

“The incentives finally make these investments profitable,” said Michele Della Vigna, a researcher at Goldman.

Environmentalists sometimes question both hydrogen and direct carbon capture technologies, in part because they’re relatively untested. But since the law’s passage last year, announcements of carbon capture projects — including a large one in Wyoming — have spiked.

Project Bison, a carbon capture facility under development by the firm CarbonCapture, is set to be the biggest project of its kind, and big names like BCG and Microsoft have signed on for its carbon removal credits.

Jonas Lee, CarbonCapture’s chief commercial officer, said that, without the law, the project would most likely have been smaller and slower moving. Even with the law’s help, its planned opening this year has been delayed. Mr. Lee did not provide a reason or a new opening date, but said the firm still expected to operate at scale.

Rusty Bell, the director of the Office of Economic Transformation at the Gillette College Foundation in Wyoming, thinks the administration’s climate push is destined for such hiccups. New technologies take time to roll out. The maze of incentives and grants on offer can be difficult to navigate.

But Mr. Bell, who wrote the opinion essay with Mr. Wendt, also says Campbell County, where he is based, recognizes that its future as a coal-producing area will hinge partly on seizing new technologies. Residents can look at flailing coal communities elsewhere and realize “we don’t want to be like that in 10, 15, 20 years,” he said.