At a downtown hearing on how CPS Energy will produce power and continue cutting emissions over the coming decades, attendees' attitudes were mixed about the best approach for San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility.
At the meeting Wednesday at La Villita Assembly Hall, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams told the crowd that the plan represents “what we can do with what we know now,” and welcomed hearing about the community’s “aspirational goals.”
“We are a bunch of engineers and analysts, so we have to figure out how we really get it done,” said Gold-Williams, who runs the utility that serves 812,000 electric and 344,000 natural gas customers in the San Antonio area.
At issue is the utility’s management of around $11 billion in assets, including power plants that allow it to insulate its customers from volatile electricity pricing it would face if it bought all its power from the grid.
Unlike the San Antonio Water System, City Council, and other local government entities, CPS Energy does not have public comment periods at its monthly board meetings. Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7), the only City Council member who spoke at the meeting, called it “historic” for the utility to hold a public hearing before its board.
Despite efforts to get the word out, attendance was sparse, with around half the seating in the event center remaining empty. About half the crowd members rose when Gold-Williams asked CPS Energy employees in the room to stand.
The others seemed evenly divided among people who supported the utility's so-called Flexible Path and those who favored more aggressive moves to cut emissions.
The plan has drawn solid support from the business community, including the San Antonio, Hispanic, North San Antonio, and South San Antonio chambers of commerce; the Real Estate Council of San Antonio; and the San Antonio Economic Development Foundation.
Chris Thiel, chairman of the North San Antonio Chamber, called it a “socially responsible and cost-conscious plan that we all can deal with.”
CPS Energy announced its Flexible Path plan in March, just as City efforts to begin drafting a climate plan began ramping up. Along with the University of Texas at San Antonio, CPS Energy is one of the partners in the plan, providing $500,000 in funding.
At the meeting, the discussion centered on whether CPS Energy’s roughly 25-year plan is an adequate response to rapid global warming caused by burning fossil fuels. The utility’s power plants are responsible for roughly half of San Antonio’s share of greenhouse gas emissions, according to a 2014 emissions inventory from the City of San Antonio.
CPS Energy officials plan to close the two Deely coal-fired power units at the end of December, leaving two newer Spruce units in place indefinitely.
In its current form, its plan calls for the utility to continue building on its relatively aggressive push to invest in wind and solar resources, with renewable energy sources making up half its generating capacity in 2040. The utility is already No. 1 for wind and solar capacity in Texas.
“The challenge with renewables ... [is] it still depends on weather – a lot,” Gold-Williams said, adding that energy storage will likely be part of the solution for renewables.
The plan calls for CPS Energy to generate 13 percent of its electricity from natural gas and 7 percent from coal. Another 9 percent would come from its co-ownership in the South Texas Project nuclear power plant, and 5 percent would come from energy storage.
The plan leaves a 16 percent gap for “flexible generation,” a placeholder for new technologies that may emerge over the coming years. Some San Antonio environmentalists fear that CPS Energy will fill this gap with natural gas if nothing else emerges.
“A lot of these are very good first steps, but we can do a lot better,” said Russell Seal, a retired pharmacist and member of the local chapter of the Sierra Club, told the board. He suggested that CPS consider new ideas to address demand, such as time-of-use rates that make electricity use more costly during peak demand hours.
Last week, a coalition of about three dozen environment and social-justice groups known as Climate Action SA announced its own climate goals last week: no coal by 2025 and no natural gas by 2030.
No one knows yet what steps will be required of CPS Energy under the City-led climate action plan, known as SA Climate Ready. The part of the plan addressing San Antonio’s greenhouse gas emissions is set to be complete by the end of the year.