It’s only been in existence for a few years, but it’s become standard practice for the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum to stage VIP-heavy, standing-room only luncheon programs at the Pearl Stable on topics ranging from nuclear energy to the Eagle Ford Shale Play to water conservation and management.
Thursday, for the first time ever, the Clean Tech Forum took its show on the road to Rackspace and “The Castle,” the former Windsor Park Mall transformed into an unconventional, energy-efficient corporate headquarters for the fast-growing cloud-computing company.
The topic of the day was air quality, the city and region’s worsening ozone problem, and how San Antonio’s growing embrace of renewable energy and sustainability can help reverse the city’s deteriorating air quality – all issues of interest to Rackspace, evident in its headquarter’s Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) Gold rating.
San Antonio remains the largest U.S. city still in compliance with federal air quality measures, as designated by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency every five years. But that status is precarious at best, the result of geography, economy and negotiation. As EPA standards inevitably grow more stringent in the face of a growing body of science warning or dire consequences if we do not reduce ozone emissions, it seems equally inevitable that San Antonio will lose its “attainment” status in the coming years.
In a sense, San Antonio and the region appear to be at a crossroads: Much is already being done, but much more remains to be done.
“San Antonio has a lot to be proud of,” said panelist Elena Craft, an Austin-based toxicologist and health scientist with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF). “It’s been able to keep ozone below (the standard) longer than other cities of its size … but we can do a lot better.”
Craft was one of four panelists on the “Keeping it Clean: Our Air, Our Health” program that drew an audience of nearly 200. Many present had a vested interest in the conversation, working in natural resource management, public health, local government or businesses promoting sustainability.
Rackspace’s own commitment to sustainability was evident in its outreach to the Clean Tech Forum to hold an event at company headquarters, and by the welcome delivered by Melissa Gray, Rackspace’s director of sustainability, a job title not found at every major employer.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff opened the program with a call for mass transit and less suburban sprawl.
“We have got to start living more closely together,” Wolff told the audience, deploring the city’s continuing sprawl and lack of mass transit options to reduce vehicle traffic and emissions.
Wolff also told a story about a meeting he had more than a decade ago with an EPA official who informed him that San Antonio was about to be declared in “non-attainment” for its worsening air quality situation, a rating that would put the city and region in the company of Houston and Dallas. Wolff revealed to the official that San Antonio and Toyota were negotiating the location here of what would become the Toyota Manufacturing Plant. The EPA official agreed to defer the negative rating and San Antonio was selected for what would become Toyota’s largest truck manufacturing plant in the world.
Luck and circumstance, then, seems to have governed the city’s favorable EPA status as much as ozone and emission readings. San Antonio is not technically at non-attainment levels now only because of the slow, complicated process of national policy revisions, said Peter Bella, the natural resources director for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, the 12-county consortium that covers San Antonio and Bexar County.
It’s as if we are in a vehicle, clearly speeding, but “we haven’t had the cop pull us over and give us the ticket yet,” Bella said. In terms of ground level ozone emissions, he said, we are clearly in violation.
Craft and Bella were joined on stage by Doyle Beneby, president and CEO of CPS Energy, and Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District and the senior health official for both the city and county. The panel discussion was moderated by Rivard Report Director Robert Rivard.
Bella praised decisions made by CPS Energy since Beneby arrived three years ago in a major management shakeup, and put the nation’s largest municipal utility on a much faster path to reducing dependence on coal while expanding its inventory of renewables and encouraging ratepayers to opt in to energy-saving home management programs. Milestones on this path include the construction of a multi-site 400 MW solar electricity generation plant and the scheduled closing of the 871-MW coal-fired J.T. Deely Power Plant. Currently, CPS also has 1,058 MW of wind power under contract to add to its energy portfolio, making it the largest publicly owned wind purchaser in the county.
“There will be a shift towards natural gas and a sprinkling of more targeted renewable (projects) that make economic sense,” Beneby said. “And an array of things we’re doing on the street level, too,” like using LEDs in streetlights, encouraging carpooling, and rebates on energy-efficient household appliances.
Still, even with the environmental advantage of not being an industrial region, “(San Antonio) is currently using more coal than the average Texas and U.S. city,” Craft said.
Craft agreed with Bella that the city’s long grace period is coming to an end. The EPA’s overdue five-year standards revisions are sure to lower emissions, currently at 76 parts per billion (ppb), to 70 or even 65 ppb.
“The easy day was yesterday,” Craft said.
The city’s SA2020 Initiative, Mayor Julian Castro’s brainstorm-turned-nonprofit organization, calls for 68 ppb by the year 2020. In 2012, ground level ozone averaged 80 ppb here. But as wind-born emissions from the Eagle Ford Shale play worsen as thousands of permitted wells are drilled and truck traffic grows even worse, the city will find itself with intensifying ground-level ozone production not directly of its own making — and beyond San Antonio or Bexar County’s authority to regulate.
Bella gave the audience a brief science lesson. When ozone, a naturally occurring gas, resides in the upper atmosphere, it serves as a shield from the harmful ultraviolet radiation emitted by the sun.
This is “good” ozone. “Bad” ozone is basically what makes up the urban smog we breathe, and is largely made up of emissions from industrial facilities, coal plants, cars, gasoline vapors, and chemical solvents.
Panelists traced the city’s declining air quality to its fast growing population and the sprawling development that has accompanied that growth, leading to far more vehicle traffic and increased demand for energy generation. The dramatic rise in drilling, surface emissions and truck traffic associated with the Eagle Ford Shale Play in South Texas, and the area’s cement quarries and plants are major contributors, too.
“But we’re not interested in finger-pointing,” Bella said.
Because air knows no political boundaries, there are pollution transport considerations to account for – which highlights the cornerstone of air quality control, that it is “everyone’s responsibility to solve the problem,” he said.
The EPA’s Cross-State Air Pollution Rule “requires states to significantly improve air quality by reducing power plant emissions that contribute to ozone and/or fine particle pollution in other states.”
The more stringent these attainment levels become, Bella said, the more attention these rules will get.
The State of Texas has already recently challenged this rule, noted Craft, whose own organization is part of a recently filed lawsuit against the Obama administration that aims to mandate new EPA standards. So the environmental agency is getting pushed from two directions, the state saying its is overstepping its boundaries and environmental agencies saying elected officials are causing the EPA to defer its legal obligations to impose cleaner air standards.
As with most environmental struggles, there is no single villain producing all ground level ozone – and panelists made it clear that individuals can make a difference with their own energy consumption practices.
Personal behavior can be hard to change, said Beneby, “but at a base level for a business, if by producing your product (you emit) pollutants into the air that have health and climate implications and you can reduce those in a competitive way, why wouldn’t you do it?”
Rackspace’s partnership with CPS serves as an example of what should be an obvious concept, said Grey.
“We’re both a global and a local company at the same time,” she said. “It’s a win-win for us to invest in a sustainable strategy including energy and emissions.”
Though the Castle is not a data center – which typically use large quantities of electricity – it accounts for 10% of Rackspace’s total energy use. Rackspace purchased 30% renewable energy in 2012 and installed four electric vehicle chargers.
“Our ‘Fanatical Support’ extends beyond customer service into how we support our business and Rackers (employees),” Grey said. “We’re looking into more renewables and transformer upgrades … CPS has been very receptive to new ideas.”
Both Beneby and Craft said civic and business leaders have a moral obligation to address air quality – not just for the environment’s sake, but for the health of our current and future populations.
“To a lot of people, climate change is abstract,” Beneby said. “But today we have people’s health affected.”
“I find this subject (air quality control) fairly complicated, but some things are simple,” said Dr. Schlenker of Metro Health. “Like Judge Wolff said … we need to live closer together and make it more attractive (and) easier to do it … the last mode you want to choose is sitting by yourself alone in a car.”
Schlenker, a pediatrician before he became a public health official, cited the Los Angeles smog event in the 1930-40s, and the 1952 London inversion, when 12,000 people died, as examples of how far we’ve come in terms of air quality and policy. It was after that catastrophe, Schlenker said, that Great Britain passed the world’s first clean air legislation.
“Things are better, but not as good as they could be,” Dr. Schlenker said. “I’m mostly a bureaucrat (now), but I’m also a pediatrician and I think about half of my practice was (treating) asthma … it’s terrifying to have babies and young children who are gasping for breath.”
Ozone is an especially insidious irritant that can inflame asthmatic symptoms and impair lung functions, Schlenker said. A recent study in Japan found that the life expectancy for people living in a town of increased ground level ozone was reduced by five years.
“And there are health implications beyond asthma,” Beneby said. Ground level ozone has also been tied to emphysema, bronchitis, and infections.
What We Can Do
“By the year 2020, our goal is to (have taken off the equivalency of) one million cars per year,” Beneby said. “There are huge opportunities for improvements and partnerships.”
An ambitious goal, and CPS’ Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP) is the key, said Bella.
The $850 million STEP program provides rebates and incentives for residential and commercial customers to purchase energy-efficient appliances, insulation, air conditioning, lighting retrofits, solar panels, and other energy-saving mechanisms. The plan aims for a demand reductions equal to 771 MW (the output of a large power plant) by 2020.
“Of the available reductions, there’s participation of about one fifth of customers,” he said. “The growth potential for that program is tremendous … take a look at the CPS Energy website, think in terms of reductions available to lower energy use – that’s what reduces the consumption of fossil fuels and that’s what help fix the air quality problem.”
For more information about CPS’ STEP program and other services visit www.cpsenergysavers.com.
San Antonio also needs to adopt more energy-efficient building codes, Craft said. San Antonio is still following the 2009 standards while Austin and Houston have already updated to the 2012 standards..
“This will reduce electricity use by 15% per month,” she said, which works out to save customers about “$21 off your monthly bill … and 900 tons of NOX (nitrogen oxides) from the state’s emissions.”
There are also the lifestyle changes, big and small, that individuals could take it upon themselves to do.
Walk. Ride a bike. Take a bus. Check the “paperless billing” box. Buy local. Unplug your phone charger when not in use. Use compact fluorescent light bulbs. All things that can’t really be legislated or mandated on an individual level … yet.
“Young people and the workforce (they become) have grown up separating trash … older fossils like myself … have had to relearn,” Beneby said, using a seatbelt law analogy: Seat belts were proven to reduce fatalities in car accidents, so people started wearing them more and more. It wasn’t until about 85% of people were already wearing them that it became the law. “The first 85 percent you (attracted) in an evolutionary way, the law tries to catch the remaining 15 percent.”
Beneby said some sort of price point for carbon should be established – via a cap-and-trade, carbon tax, or subsidy-removal system – with some corresponding trade-off, perhaps using the revenue to offset the federal deficit, to create some sort of agreement acceptable to both political parties.
What it comes down to, Craft said, is how long we want to live comfortably on this planet.
“We all have a responsibility to make changes and learn,” she said.
Full disclosure: The Arsenal Group conducted a four-month review of CPS Energy communications for the utility starting in June 2012. Monika Maeckle, a former member of the The Arsenal Group and wife of Robert Rivard, now works at CPS as its Director of Integrated Communications. This disclosure was published Sept. 26, 2013 in response to an Express-News inquiry.