CPS Energy is moving ahead with plans to create a first-ever committee of volunteers that will examine the structure of its electricity and gas rates.

At its March meeting Monday, CPS Energy’s board of trustees approved a resolution calling for the development of a rate advisory committee. Similar to the San Antonio Water System’s Rate Advisory Committee, the CPS Energy version would take a thorough look at how the utility’s rates are designed and how they affect different types of customers.

Some, including Mayor Ron Nirenberg, see rate structure changes as a way to help CPS Energy transition away from coal and natural gas more quickly while keeping utility bills affordable. Nirenberg started pushing for such a committee earlier this year and garnered support from most of City Council.

“We’re at an inflection point for this organization, which can turn out to be very positive for us in terms of long-term health, not just for the organization, but our community health in general,” said Nirenberg, a CPS Energy board member in his official capacity.

Ed Kelley, the retired president and CEO of USAA Real Estate who represents the utility’s northwest quadrant, was the only trustee on the five-person board to vote no. At the meeting, Kelley called the rate advisory committee “totally redundant,” as CPS Energy’s existing Citizens Advisory Committee (CAC) has been in place for 22 years.

“If one committee’s good, two committees must be better,” Kelley said, speaking ironically. “Why not have five committees?”

Kelley went on to call the committee “political eyewash, pure and simple.” He pointed to CPS Energy’s single rate increase in the past nine years, which came in 2013. Kelley contrasted it with SAWS, which has raised its customers’ rates every year for more than a decade.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams at the meeting distinguished between raising rates and changing the structure of the rates.

“We have not done any changes in design in any substantial portion in decades,” Gold-Williams said.

Nirenberg responded to Kelley’s comments, saying that not all of the 15 positions on the CAC are currently filled. That committee’s meetings are also not open to the public; the rate advisory committee’s would be. Also, the CAC has not formally taken up a study of CPS Energy’s rates, he said.

“This would be a different structure,” Nirenberg said. “In the end, if it’s decided that we don’t need both, I would suggest to you that this rate advisory committee needs to stand. And I can tell you … there’s a strong desire to have this from the council, and I intend to deliver.”

The resolution approved Monday did not create a formal structure for the committee or state how many members it would have, how they would be appointed, or which of the municipally owned utility’s customers it would represent. Instead, it directs CPS Energy staff to outline the details before returning to the board for approval.

“We will talk to anybody about everything that’s going on,” Gold-Williams told board members. “We will take a charge to look at the split of responsibilities, to be fair, and we will look at the CAC and the things that they do. Our understanding for what this rate advisory committee is is more work, and it may not be fair to ask [the CAC] to do it.”

The vote came after pushing from environmentalists who have long called for CPS Energy to open up its rate structure for changes.

At the meeting, CPS Energy board chair John Steen, a former Texas Secretary of State who represents the utility’s northeast quadrant, said he worked to draft the ordinance after reading a guide from the American Public Power Association that he received from Environmental Defense Fund project manager Mario Bravo.

DeeDee Belmares, a San Antonio climate justice organizer with watchdog organization Public Citizen, said they welcome the committee, “as this will be a start to an open and transparent process that allows community members to have an active role in participating” in deciding how the utility generates power. She also called for the utility to publicly share more of its data and financial modeling.

CPS Energy currently charges residential customers a $8.75 monthly fixed charge and 6.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh), plus an extra 1.9 cents per kwh for usage over 600 kwh during the high-demand months of June through September.

Business customers pay CPS Energy the same $8.75 fixed charge, plus 7.2 cents per kwh for the first 1,600 kwh. After that the price drops to 3.3 cents per kwh. From June through September, CPS Energy adds a charge of nearly 2 cents for usage over 600 kwh. From October to May, that extra charge drops to 1 cent per kwh.

Also on Monday, the CPS Energy board approved the sale of the Villita Assembly Building at 401 Villita St. The nearly 25,000-square foot circular building with a flower design on its roof dates back to Hemisfair in 1968.

Utility officials have not disclosed any potential buyer or sales price – nor has any such information been disclosed for the sale of its Northside Customer Service Center at 7000 San Pedro Ave. Though the board approved of the sale of that property in January, it has not yet been finalized, according to CPS Energy staff.

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons

Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report's environment and energy reporter.