The Problem of Power: CPS and the Climate Action Plan

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CPS Energy President & Chief Executive Officer Paula Gold-Williams is congratulated before the official announcement of her position at a CPS Energy Board Meeting on July 25, 2016. Photo by Scott Ball.

Scott Ball / Rivard Report

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams greets CPS Energy board Chair John Steen.

San Antonio residents, unlike 72 percent of the United States, have a public-owned energy utility. This means low rates, local control, and high reliability. Our energy utility, CPS Energy, isn’t beholden to some far-away investors, it’s beholden to us, ratepayers and community members. 

However, CPS Energy is resistant to change. Even when it has no choice. Perhaps especially when it has no choice. 

Since 2017, our local government has been developing a climate plan for San Antonio. It’s known as SA Climate Ready, or the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP). The CAAP is scheduled for a City Council vote on Oct. 17 and while the plan itself is not an ordinance or legally binding, a yes vote would show a mandate for climate action in San Antonio. 

One of the power players in this climate planning process was CPS Energy. While it heavily influenced this process, it did not publicly participate in it. Rather, representatives from CPS Energy sat in the back of meeting after meeting, taking notes and silently observing. 

They did not provide data, they did not offer feedback, and most importantly, they did not ask for feedback on their deeply inadequate energy generation plan that they released during the climate planning process. What’s more, CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams sent a letter last April to Doug Melnick, San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer, that derailed the most transformative aspects of the plan: decarbonization and public oversight of CPS Energy. 

Why would our publicly owned energy utility observe, direct, and influence a timely and incredibly important climate plan only to torpedo its efforts behind closed doors? 

The answer is power. 

Power hits at the heart of the problem with the CAAP and other planning endeavors like it. Who has it, who doesn’t, and who is suffering as a result. Those in power, like the CPS Energy executives, make decisions that they are not directly harmed by. 

They can give the green light on building a costly and polluting coal plant that they plan on running into the 2060s, they can try to expand nuclear, and they can aim to develop more natural gas, but they aren’t the ones that live near fossil fuel infrastructure. These executives don’t have to deal with increased chances of asthma, cancer, or heart problems. And even if they do, they have access to medical services in a way that the poor communities who live near these toxic sites most likely don’t. They don’t worry about increasing energy bills. They aren’t concerned about increasingly dangerous work conditions like their field workers probably are. 

It is easy to champion incremental change when you benefit from the status quo.

Even though CPS Energy is publicly owned, it is not a democratic institution. It is not helping to build a better world. For CPS Energy to truly put people first, it must rapidly transition away from fossil fuels, engage in a just transition for its workers, and be owned and operated for and by the people of San Antonio, not for the interests of big corporations and the fossil fuel industry. The question remains: How do we put the “public” back in City Public Services? 

The answer is energy democracy. 

Energy democracy is the idea that not only should our utilities urgently transition to renewable energy, but that transition should be overseen by the public through meaningful public participation, control, and oversight. What would CPS Energy look like if those at the decision-making table were utility linemen, nurses, teachers, mechanics, servers, electricians, maids, landscapers, retail workers, baristas, customer service representatives, domestic workers, solar technicians, librarians? What if our energy plan for the future of San Antonio was drafted by those who will ultimately be in charge of creating those changes for a sustainable future? 

Many of the San Antonio residents I talk to in my work as a community organizer, especially people of color who come from poor communities, feel ignored by CPS Energy. They see CPS Energy operating as an opaque, impenetrable entity that does what it wants, regardless of public interest.

During a recent conversation, a resident said, “People in power don’t care about [our] stories. They only care about numbers and money.” This sentiment is common and resounding. San Antonians feel as if our voices don’t matter. And currently, they’re right. 

We need to make CPS Energy a democratic, transparent, and participatory utility. Here are some examples of how a democratic utility could look in practice: 

  • Invest in solar, wind, and energy storage, while setting urgent deadlines to shut down fossil fuel infrastructure. 
  • Create a democratic board of directors that is composed of one-third public officials, one-third utility employees elected by the company workforce, and one-third ordinary residents elected by peers with two-year term limits. This board would be mandated to reflect the demographic and class characteristics of the community it serves, there would be channels for utility customers to directly contact board members, and there would be public board meetings that take place during non-work hours 
  • Establish opportunities for direct engagement such as public forums, neighborhood assemblies, online engagement, and regular roundtables where environmental advocates, community members, experts, and business owners discuss milestones toward 100 percent renewable energy.
  • Create a just transition program that works with unions to train former fossil fuel workers in other meaningful and well-paid jobs, such as solar technicians, wind turbine mechanics, electricians, and low-carbon jobs, such as nurses and teachers.
  • Initiate an equitable rate structure, such as Percentage Income Payment Plan (PIPP), with the goal to make energy rates affordable, while prioritizing a transition to renewable energy. 
  • Tie all executive pay to carbon reduction goals.

These are just some of the ways in which energy democracy could function within CPS Energy. Investing in energy democracy means investing in our city and the people who live here. We have the chance to reinvent our communities to serve people and our planet, not profit for a few connected to the fossil fuel industry. Together, we could make our public utility serve us.

However, those in power at CPS Energy aren’t going to give us this future on its own. We, the people, are going to have to demand, struggle, and work toward it.

Just remember, though: when we fight, we win.

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