Scott Ball / Rivard Report
As far as CPS Energy trustee Ed Kelley is concerned, cities should not be in the business of passing climate action plans.
“I don’t see cities in this role,” Kelley said at the utility’s August board meeting on Monday, as he and other trustees prepared to take a vote on a resolution in support of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan.
A new draft of the plan released earlier this month calls for San Antonio to bring its net carbon emissions to zero by 2050, though the new draft softened most of the previous version’s language about specific cuts to fossil fuels.
The new language was enough to win support of the utility’s board, which voted to approve the resolution on Monday. But for Kelley, a former USAA Real Estate executive who has proven to be a strong voice for San Antonio’s business community in his eight years on the CPS Energy board, the plan has nothing to do with the proper role of municipalities. However, he called the latest version “the lesser of two evils.”
“I don’t think this will cure another pothole,” Kelley said. “I don’t think it will lessen another traffic jam. I don’t think it will bring another direct flight to the international airport. I don’t think it will lower our burdensome taxes. Those are the things that the city government needs to deal with.”
That’s a little more pointed than the utility’s staff tend to be when discussing the climate plan, though CPS Energy’s influence on the process has been undeniable.
Since San Antonio’s climate planning efforts first kicked off in December 2017, CPS Energy has played a significant, if not vocal role. The vast majority of the money used to develop the proposal came from the utility, which spent $450,000 on a contract with Navigant Consulting to develop the plan and provided $295,000 in funding to the University of Texas at San Antonio for climate modeling and other efforts.
In April, the utility’s staff sent a letter to City Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick that laid out its opposition to the coal- and natural gas-killing language in the climate plan, among other issues. Though it was written four months ago, the letter didn’t begin to make the rounds with environmentalists and others closely involved with the plan until last week.
CPS Energy submitted the letter during the public comment period on the draft climate plan. During that time, City officials logged more than 2,300 responses from residents, businesses, and interest groups.
Read CPS Energy’s letter on the plan.
In the letter, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams described the utility as a “business owned by a community” which “must consider all our investors who are our customers, as well as those who have prudently loaned us money.” CPS Energy’s top officials often have said they consider the utility more of a business than a government entity, more than the San Antonio Water System or other City-related entities.
In the letter, Gold-Williams said CPS Energy officials “unequivocally welcome and value feedback” but that “creating a new governing committee, solely focused on our environmental generation planning is problematic and presents significant challenges to our historically highly effective business model and approach.”
The letter and CPS Energy’s resistance to such a governance committee have frustrated local environmentalists, many of whom frequently lobby the utility in private meetings as part of its Environmental Stakeholders group.
In an email, Michael Coleman, a communications strategist for Public Citizen, one of the environmental groups pushing for climate action in San Antonio, said CPS Energy “has twisted the request for a public resource planning process to mean that only environmentalists would have a say,” even though “no one proposed that.”
“This hubris is a bit outrageous,” Coleman continued, citing examples of CPS Energy in 2016 writing off $391.4 million in expenses for a failed nuclear plant expansion and building a coal plant in 2010, at a time when most U.S. utilities were beginning to close down coal plants.
“Clearly, the utility doesn’t know everything,” Coleman said. “It has made some serious and costly missteps. Greater public oversight would help reduce the risk of additional costly mistakes.”
Regardless, the utility’s comments appear to have been heard. Among the changes to the climate plan was an edit to a line calling for CPS Energy to reduce its greenhouse gas emissions 100 percent over three decades. The plan’s new draft calls for CPS Energy to continue to “drive towards carbon neutrality” through programs it’s already implementing.
With coal and natural gas power plants that make up the largest sources of greenhouse gas emissions in the San Antonio area, the utility’s stance on climate issues makes a difference in whether the city can meet the climate plan’s goal of carbon neutrality by 2050.
CPS Energy has made strong strides on reducing its customers’ energy demand and rapidly deploying wind and solar power. Because of CPS Energy, San Antonio is the No. 1 city in Texas for the amount of solar capacity in city limits and often fluctuates between No. 6 and No. 7 in the nation.
In fact, the only reason San Antonio’s overall emissions went down between 2014 and 2016 was because of the utility relying less on fossil fuels, Angela Rodriguez, CPS Energy’s interim director of climate and sustainability, told board members at the meeting.
However, under its proposed Flexible Path plan, the utility has said it still plans to be burning coal in 2042, and it could be even longer. A slide Gold-Williams presented at the Monday board meeting showed CPS Energy operating its Spruce 2 coal unit, completed in 2010, until the 2060s.
The utility also must grapple with its aging natural gas plants, many of which will end their useful lives by 2030, according to Gold-Williams’ slide. In July, CPS Energy announced it would pursue more large-scale solar, battery storage, and a contract to buy electricity from an undisclosed already-existing natural gas plant somewhere on the Texas grid.
CPS Energy’s issues with the previous draft might have more to do with the pace of changes it proposes than the need for a shift away from fossil fuels overall. At the Monday meeting, Gold-Williams said that “we believe that the future is non-emitting.”
“But we have to manage that on a path that gets there over time as technology gets better,” she continued.
Of its board members, only Kelley expressed opposition to the plan at the meeting, where he also questioned whether one city in Texas passing a climate plan would do any good for the global climate as a whole. He cited a figure based on 2014 data compiled by the U.S. Department of Energy that the U.S. accounts for only 15 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions.
“I think this is an international problem,” Kelley said. “It’s like [if] spitting in the ocean could make a difference in terms of sea level.”
U.S. emissions are second only to China, which in 2014 was responsible for 30 percent of global emissions. China and the U.S. are followed by the European Union, India, Russia, and Japan, with all other countries combined responsible for 30 percent of global emissions.
Mayor Ron Nirenberg, a CPS Energy board member in his official capacity, views San Antonio’s role in the global climate differently. For Nirenberg, the climate plan is a signature policy goal meant to make good on a 2017 resolution by City Council members to help meet the goals of the international Paris Agreement meant to stop the worst effects of rapid climate change.
“Yes, we are a small dot in a big globe, but this is an international effort to create change for the next generation,” Nirenberg said. “It’s not just about potholes, although we do that too. This is about making sure that our children inherit a stronger earth than what we have right now.”
CPS Energy’s newest board member, Juanita “Janie” Gonzalez, said the plan should be “beyond aspirational” but also consider how to invest “thoughtfully” and “take into consideration those who don’t have means.”
“It’s a balancing act making sure we’re very socially responsible as well as financially responsible,” she said.
After another round of vetting at the Planning Commission and a City Council committee, the climate plan is set for a vote on Oct. 17.