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The Power of Wind and Women in Wyoming

Frank Barry
·12 min read

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- No one warned us about the Wyoming wind. With both hands wrapped tight on the wheel, I’m fighting gusts that are jerking and shaking the Winnebago, rattling everything, including our nerves. I slow down — 45, 40, 35 — but we’re still getting pushed around. A thumping starts on the roof. Did something come loose? We’re too close to our camping spot for the night, the Terry Bison Ranch, to stop now.

The ranch, just south of Cheyenne, is part Old West theme park and animal zoo, more campy than when Teddy Roosevelt visited in 1910 — feasting on pike, prairie chicken, roast elk and sherbet — but still a respite after a rough ride.

When I open the driver’s side door, the wind takes it and tests the strength of the hinge. The door holds but, I now see, the outside canopy did not — it sprang loose from its coil during the drive and is flapping furiously. I attempt to secure it with duct tape but the wind is too strong. Even keeping my balance is difficult, and as the RV shakes back and forth, I wonder: Could this thing tip over on me? Maybe it’s OK to lose the canopy.

The ranch hand at check-in is unfazed by the wind — “That’s Wyoming” — but the woman behind me delivers some startling news: “We saw two semis blown over on 80,” the interstate. The obvious is now dawning on me: We should not have been on the road. I finally check the weather report: “High Wind Warning … Winds 40 to 50 mph with gusts up to 75 mph … a high risk for vehicle blow overs.” We dodged disaster, though not entirely unscathed. I have no idea how to fix the canopy, but it’s late in the day and I’m drained. Is the saloon open?

“We don’t call it winter here. We call it ‘winder’ because when the fall comes, it’s just the winds blowing.” It’s the next morning and I’m with Steve Hrkach, a wind energy instructor at Laramie County Community College in Cheyenne. Becoming a wind technician takes two years of science and engineering mixed with critical thinking and hands-on skill development — brains and brawn, Hrkach says. Today, his class of three is practicing emergency rescues on a ladder.

“One of the things we stress in this program is: I guarantee you’re going to get a job. There’s tons of jobs. I have companies, recruiters calling me all the time. As a matter of fact, I got an email yesterday asking for names.”

The wind industry is booming in Wyoming. Hrkach says the region has some of the best winds in the country. No kidding. But controversy around wind farms abounds. To skeptics, he says: “Here’s an opportunity for our young people to stay in Wyoming. We’re great at exporting resources. We have wheat, cattle, coal, natural gas. Unfortunately we’re also exporting our people to get jobs at other places. OK, maybe you’re against green energy and wind. I get that, I’m OK with that. But 50 years ago, if I told you I was going to sell wind to California, you’d think I was a snake oil salesman.”

He tells me a story to illustrate the difficulty of persuading the opposition.

“The Roundhouse Wind Project is just west of town. They put in 82 turbines, they’re trying to put in another 20-some turbines. A woman living in that area came to talk to me about wind energy and to get some information, but really she just came to voice her displeasure. But she would keep saying, ‘Well they say this’ and ‘They say that.’ And I said, ‘Well, who are they? Tell me who are you getting your facts from?’ She said, ‘Just they.’ She didn’t have anything. And so I started presenting her with some facts, like the Federal Wildlife does a study on bird kills and how many birds are actually killed by turbines and how we’ve tried to mitigate that. And that was a big problem. And so she said, ‘I don’t believe that.’

“I said, ‘What do you mean you don’t believe that?’

“‘I don’t believe that.’

“I said, ‘Well you’re willing to believe “they,” who we don’t know who they are, but when I give you actual organizations that have done studies, you just discredit them.’”

Rusty is up on the ladder practicing a rescue, secure in a harness, weighed down by tools, and handling pulleys and clamps. At 35, he’s the senior statesman of the class. He previously worked as a heavy-equipment operator for a company that staged mass gatherings, including concerts and festivals. The live entertainment industry collapsed in March, and with no return to work in sight, he enlisted in the program.

“I really wanted to keep in an industry that was going to allow me to travel, and something that I could take internationally if I wanted to. And coming from a company that has a real focus on environmentalism and conservation” — the events company worked to minimize waste — “I really didn’t want to jump into a field that was the antithesis of that. I didn’t want to jump into oil or gas or any non-renewable resources, and wind really stuck out. ... I’ve always been mechanically inclined. I’ve always liked taking things apart and putting them back together. And I think this is going to be a fun thing to go and troubleshoot and have a different problem every day, in a different place every day.”

The chance for upward mobility within the profession also appealed to him. “That’s definitely been a consideration. One of my goals for doing this is to be a crew lead so that I can assemble a crew of people that I trust and people that work well together to go and do the best job that we can. Having worked in live music, I’ve run into nearly every problem that you can run into when you have people gathered and people working.”

Has he faced any of the criticism that Hrkach has dealt with? “Some of my family does work in oil. So, there’s been some pushback there. There’s been some passive-aggressive Facebook posts saying how oil is so much better than wind and stuff like that. But for the most part, a lot of my friends and family have seen this as sort of a natural progression and are very supportive of this. Very supportive.”

I ask Hrkach if they ever talk about climate change in class. “We’re mechanics, we’re not politicians, we’re not corporate business people, we’re not shaping public opinion, we’re just out there to do a job. And we want to do it well. In order for turbines to be successful, they have to run. And if they’re not running, that gives opposing sides ammunition. So if we can keep those turbines running, operating at peak efficiency, making power, providing energy for the United States, who can argue with that?”

Just past the highest point on the Lincoln Highway — marked by a Lincoln monument sculpted in Mexico and originally placed on the two-lane road, only to be moved to an I-80 rest stop beside the bathrooms, perhaps the most American of all tributes — lies Laramie, Wyoming, home to the University of Wyoming Cowboys and the first woman to cast a ballot in an election: Louisa Swain in 1870, a year after Wyoming became the first government in the Western world to legalize female suffrage. Democrats pushed it through the territorial legislature at least partly to embarrass the Republican governor — they expected him to veto it, even as he supported Black suffrage and the passage of the 15th Amendment. Instead, he signed the bill and vetoed the Democratic effort to repeal it two years later, when legislators realized that Wyoming women strongly favored Republican candidates. They came within one vote of overriding the veto.

Voting laws have always been tied up in partisan politics. In Laramie, sitting in Susan Simpson’s backyard, she and Katie Morgan — the president and treasurer of the Wyoming League of Women Voters, respectively — are telling me about their efforts to make it easier to register to vote and cast a ballot.

Says Simpson: “In Wyoming, people who apply to be a registered voter have to have their signature notarized. And the county clerks think that they are the only people who can register voters” — all but requiring people to visit the clerk’s office to register. There is no online registration, and voter registration drives are effectively illegal. “We would like to be able to do voter registration drives, because then we could ask permission to have people’s phone numbers or emails. And we could text them and remind them to vote on Election Day, and that increases turnout. … Our turnout is despicable.”

This year because of Covid-19, the Republican secretary of state sent out absentee voter applications to every registered voter in the state. “It’s wonderful,” says Simpson. “He said 66,000 absentee ballots had been turned in.” They would like to see the state adopt vote by mail.

Morgan makes the case: “My daughter lives in Colorado, she’s a college student there and she loves it. She says, ‘This is great, mom — they send you your ballot, you fill it out, there’s all sorts of drop boxes or you mail it.’ Voting by mail would certainly be great in Wyoming for a couple of reasons. We are so physically distanced, sometimes it’s hard for people to get in to vote. And in November, we can have horrible weather here and that makes it difficult for older people, or even younger people.”

But they are realists, says Morgan. “I’m not optimistic that will happen in the short term, given our current state government.” Why? Partisan politics. “The pushback against some of the voting reforms that we see now arise more out of input from the national policy of the Republican Party. That’s who’s in charge in Wyoming and has been for a while. So, it’s not really arising out of any issues that we can see in Wyoming per se, but pushback from the national party pushing into the state.”

As I’ve seen elsewhere along the route, it’s become hard to say that all politics is local.

We are grounded in Laramie for an extra day because of another high-wind advisory, time enough to visit the old prison that once housed Butch Cassidy. I’m now checking the forecast every hour and realizing that for the next few days the morning hours will be the only safe time to drive, and even that will be tense.

After dropping off our absentee ballots at the Laramie post office, we take the Lincoln Highway north to Medicine Bow, seeing dozens of wind turbines, a herd of antelope, the nearly deserted town of Rock River, and not a lot else — even the distant mountains are shrouded in clouds. The old Virginian Hotel, an elegant holdover from the heyday of the Lincoln Highway and the Union Pacific, which stopped across the street, is open for business and serving what may the largest pancake and egg sandwich in the world. Business is good, the cook-waiter-busser-cashier tells us, though we have the restaurant nearly to ourselves.

By the time we get to Rawlins, Wyoming, the winds are back up above 25 mph — time to call it a day. The KOA campground has already closed for the season, and the owner, Marilyn Godfrey, says the year ended on a high note after a tough start. Not only did campers end up coming en masse, but temporary wind industry workers, some building towers but more installing transmission lines, came and stayed for months.

“A lot of them travel with their families. They live in their trailers and they’re pretty much transient workers. They just move from job to job. And with the wind farms being across the country, they have to go from one place to the other. A lot of young kids in their early 20s.”

It’s been good for the town. “Rawlins is a boom-and-bust economy. And so our boom times are when the transient workers come, or the oil field workers. The bust is when they are not here. Economically, [wind] is a huge driver for Rawlins.”

We plan to leave Rawlins at daybreak to avoid the worst of the wind, but we still wake up to a shaking RV. Another morning of stressful driving lies ahead, but at least we won’t have to worry about thumping on the roof. The main RV dealer in town wouldn’t see us — too busy with appointments — but a mobile repairman was willing to take a look at our canopy and happened to have the part needed to re-secure it.

Wind techs may be in high demand, but RV repair seems like a pretty good career opportunity, too.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Frank Barry is a columnist for Bloomberg Opinion. This column is part of a series, “Looking for Lincoln: A Portrait of America at a Crossroads.” It features reports from Barry’s journey west along the Lincoln Highway, a zigzagging network of local roads running from Times Square to the Golden Gate Bridge, from Sept. 11 to Election Day.

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