It’s time to ‘Future Proof’ San Antonio’s Energy Supply

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CPS Energy Spruce units.

Bonnie Arbittier / Rivard Report

CPS Energy's Spruce coal plant in operation today

In the long struggle for a socially just and economically sensible energy policy in San Antonio, City-owned CPS Energy has frequently been the speed bump – if not the roadblock – to progress. While CPS has, at times, led in local solar and renewable energy development, the gains have too often been bookended with boondoggles.

In 2007, the utility’s leadership tried to expand the South Texas Project (STP) nuclear plant only to watch projected costs balloon by roughly $10 billion. Around the same time, as coal plant orders were being canceled elsewhere, CPS pressed on to build a billion-dollar coal plant in 2010.

Ratepayers protested both decisions and they were right to do so in each case. San Antonio had to sue its way out of the failed STP gamble, ultimately losing hundreds of millions of our money. And, thanks to a report from Synapse Energy Economics released last week, we now know the Spruce coal plant is a bust.

Former Mayor Julián Castro gave the City (and himself) a shoutout during the recent Democratic presidential debate, stating, “When I was mayor of San Antonio, we moved our local utility and began to shift it from coal-fired plants to solar and other renewables.”

If only CPS would finish the job. Synapse’s new report, commissioned by the Sierra Club, shows that CPS Energy could save an average of $85 million each year from 2026 to 2040 by shutting Spruce down and instead investing in wind, solar, and battery storage.

Will they?

If history is any guide, not without concerted community resistance and help from our elected leaders. The negative outflows of fossil fuels are numerous. Sky-high childhood asthma rates, lead poisoning, and growing heat and extreme weather wrought by climate disruption are all disproportionately hitting low-income families. Even as EPA appointees scrap environmental safeguards across the board, agency scientists have warned we will see more deaths because of relaxing federal standards.

With the Synapse report, we know that when CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams comes to Council later this year for a rate increase, it will be because she didn’t go harder or faster on clean energy. So add unaffordable utility bills to the list of the evils fossil fuels represent for many working families.

So why is CPS holding on to Spruce when we know coal isn’t competitive anymore?

Gold-Williams says that CPS has simply invested too much in Spruce to pull out now. As a housing justice advocate, I’m more than a little frustrated at how Gold-Williams often describes CPS’ situation as being tied to a home with a high mortgage. No matter what problems arise with the existing house, she argues, it doesn’t mean one has the resources to buy a new house, taking on two mortgages.

It’s a bad analogy.

A toxic coal-fired power plant isn’t a home, it’s another failed gamble. Spruce doesn’t nurture economic stability as a home should. Its toxicity and costs put our health at risk and compound housing unaffordability. Even former mayor Castro, after setting the table for mass residential displacement in his “Decade of Downtown,” now wears T-shirts declaring, “Housing is a Human Right” (which it is) and draws links between climate change and housing affordability.

Is Gold-Williams worried about credit ratings? Interestingly, Synapse reports that any outstanding debt at Spruce is not that big of an issue for credit rating agencies; for those agencies, the issue is that Spruce isn’t competitive with clean energy sources.

Yet leaders at the utility are still unwilling to have an honest dialogue about the economics of their decisions. They shouldn’t be. Utilities across the country and here in Texas have engaged the public and the power sector by issuing broad public requests for proposals for coal replacement options. The result of this open process has been plans that replace coal with clean energy at financial savings.

During the Democratic debate in Miami last month, Castro reminded us of a time when our city was excited about a just energy transition. With the climate crisis now coalescing with our housing crisis, that enthusiasm has returned with an urgency.

On Wednesday night at Trinity University, I will be joining a panel to discuss these issues and more. The simple takeaway for those who can’t make it is this: Synapse clears the road of the final obstacle to Castro’s suggested “shift.” It also offers a clear shot at success for current Mayor Ron Nirenberg. Will he take it?

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