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Wyoming Energy Costs*
Incongruity in Wyoming: Costly Energy Amid Bounty
By MICHAEL JANOFSKY
Kevin Moloney for The New York Times
Linda Romero, who runs a store in Cheyenne, Wyo., has seen her energy costs rise to $400 a month, from $125. She closed a building in which she sold furniture and antiques because it was too costly to heat and light.
HEYENNE, Wyo., May 31 The first thing Jack Miller did to offset rising electricity bills at his spacious cowboy theme store, Wyoming Home, was to replace all the 150-watt and 250-watt bulbs with fluorescent lighting. Next, he said, the basement boiler goes in favor of a forced-air heating system, a $15,000 changeover that could save him $1,000 a month.
Throughout the West, not just in California, record energy costs are squeezing family and business budgets of millions of people like Mr. Miller. Mr. Miller's recent bills for Wyoming Home have soared as high as $2,200 a month from a previous peak of $1,400.
But the annoyance over soaring energy costs here is magnified by a glaring paradox: Wyoming has so much coal, natural gas and uranium reserves that Gov. Jim Geringer, a Republican, recently told Congress that the state could match the energy output of the OPEC nations for the next 41 years.
"It's not a rare observation on the part of our customers," Bryce Freeman, the leading rate analyst for the Wyoming Public Service Commission, said. "People look out their windows and see 15 drilling operations, and they're still paying some of the highest rates in the nation."
The cause of that incongruity is simple, energy officials say, and it is one reason energy prices in many other parts of the West are expected to rise for several more years before they stabilize.
The electricity grid in Wyoming cannot carry any more electrons, they say. New lines must be strung or existing lines improved. The state expects to gain perhaps four new power plants in the next few years, but far more critical, Governor Geringer said, is adding high voltage lines to carry more electricity generated by the state's oil, gas and coal reserves.
Wyoming has none of the 500 kilovolt lines that loop through the Pacific Northwest south into California, then east into Arizona. This means that Wyoming's lines play a limited role in supplying energy to the points of greatest need, because most can carry only 230 kilovolts. But plans for more transmission lines remain largely in the talking stage.
Wyoming's own energy demands and operations are limited; its population of about 490,000 is the smallest of any state. Energy companies in Wyoming export about 80 percent of what they produce, sending natural gas, oil, uranium and wind-generated electricity to 32 other states.
"We have even more energy supplies than Texas, Alaska or Venezuela," said Mr. Geringer, who supports the Bush administration's policy of developing more domestic fuel sources and building new plants and lines to carry the energy to market.
Much more energy lies dormant, as Wyoming, through a new energy commission, contemplates ways to attract investors to build more power plants and new transmission lines to help supply the growing demands in other states.
Running a high-voltage spur from Wyoming into central California would start a domino effect of benefits throughout the region, Mr. Geringer said. He believes that by helping satisfy the demand in California and other populous regions, generators could wean themselves from the expensive spot market for electricity and sign more long-term contracts, which would help stabilize prices all across the West, including Wyoming. Only by adding energy to the total grid can an individual state draw more energy for its own growing demands.
Environmentalists in Wyoming and elsewhere generally oppose the solutions proposed by Mr. Geringer and the Bush administration. They urge conservation, rather than construction, as the best approach to lowering energy costs.
But Mr. Geringer and other officials insist that conserving energy is only a small part of the long-term solution, which they say must include developing new energy supplies to bring prices down and keep them down.
For now, that offers little solace to many Wyoming residents, like Mike Straw, of Pine Bluffs, who is a planner for VAE Nortrack, a railroad company.
Eating lunch today at the Diamond Horseshoe Cafe, Mr. Straw said his residential electricity bills had doubled, to about $100 a month, which meant he had to postpone buying a van for his family, which includes five children, to replace his 1976 model.
"I feel victimized," he said. "We used to have among the absolute lowest rates in the country. I don't think there are any shortages. I guess it's just easier to let Wyoming suffer."
Like many other hotel owners around the west, Paul Smith, who operates the 260-room Hitching Post Inn here, has begun to pass the rising energy costs to customers in a $4-a- night surcharge to cover a $7,000 jump in his monthly electricity bills.
A similar increase is expected next January, but Mr. Smith said he had not decided whether to pass that on. He fears it might drive away business.
At her small general store not far from the Hitching Post, Linda Romero does not have the luxury of passing on her energy costs, which have surged to $400 a month, from $125. She now sells only small, inexpensive items after the increase forced her to close a building she used for selling furniture and antiques. It was costing her too much for heating and light, Ms. Romero said.
Next to go, she said, may be the cart she uses to cook hot dogs and mix slushy drinks.
Standing on the sidewalk out front, she said wistfully that the simulated Wild West gunfights staged daily for tourists, starting this weekend, might attract some business.
"I sure hope things get better," she said, looking into the distance. "If not, next year I might not be here."
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