CPS Energy Forecast: Hazy with Strong Chance of Coal

Coal plant in use.

Coal plant in use. Image Detail: U.S. Department of Energy.

CPS Energy’s “Flexible Generation Plan” anticipates the city will still be burning coal in 2042.

I hope when I’m gone and the ages shall roll,
My body will blacken and turn into coal.
Then I’ll look from the door of my heavenly home,
And pity the miner a-diggin’ my bones.

—Merle Travis, ‘Dark as a Dungeon’ (1946)

For the coal miners of the last couple centuries—those whose labor fed a revolution of heavy industrial expansion (and unwittingly our current global climate crisis)—it was likely impossible to imagine a future without the black stuff. Coal was the product of ages, its seams stitching the earth. It was the black smoke of home fires and the often-fatal lung-clogging dust of work.

But coal has fallen on hard times. And it’s unlikely to be around much longer, certainly not the millions of years it would take for Merle (RIP) to be pressed, a la Han Solo, into carbon-dense rock. Despite federal interest in subsidizing this 19th century technology, coal has largely been displaced by a natural gas boom and is being lapped by fast-falling solar and wind energy prices.

In 2016, the US Department of Energy reported that 187,117 people are working in the traditional fossil fuel sector. Meanwhile, nearly 374,000 were working in the solar industry alone.

Around the country, more than three out of every four coal plants that have been proposed over the last decade or so have failed before ground was even broken. Texas has not built a coal plant since 2010.

Synapse Energy Economics has shown that the Spruce coal plant (Spruce 2 being that aforementioned “last” coal plant) is losing money now and will likely keep doing so into the future.

Yet CPS Energy isn’t ready to let it go. In fact, as the community was informed last week, CPS apparently hopes to keep Spruce 2 burning until at least 2042. Likely the massive $1 billion-dollar gamble of building the plant so recently is playing into their calculus.

Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power make up nearly half of CPS Energy's vision for power generation in 2042.

Coal, natural gas, and nuclear power make up nearly half of CPS Energy’s vision for power generation in 2042.

On Tuesday, March 6, CPS Energy’s General Manager Paula Gold Williams unveiled the municipal utility’s latest strategic vision, captured in the image above, to the utility’s board of trustees. The so-called “Flexible Plan” relies on burning coal and fracked gas for the foreseeable future. While CPS Energy envisions renewable energy additions, those are modest and appear mostly in the 2030s.

Instead of going big with renewable energy as other cities are doing, CPS Energy appears to be leaving the door wide open for continued reliance on fossil fuels, even as it plans to retire its dirtiest coal plant, JT Deely, at some point this year.

Under this vision, the Spruce 1 power plant wouldn’t be retired until 2030 and Spruce 2 power plant would still run until at least 2042. Both units are top sources of climate pollution in the San Antonio area. In fact, the utility’s coal and gas plants at Calaveras Lake south of town belch out nearly 10 million metric tons of CO2 every year.

Additionally, the complex pumps out 670 tons of methane (86 times as potent as CO2) and 814 tons of nitrous oxide (300 times more powerful).

“It’s absurd to think that we should have any coal in our energy mix anywhere close to 2042. If CPS is at all serious about addressing climate change and the impact air pollution has on public health, all coal should be phased out over the next decade,” said Terry Burns, MD, Chair of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club.

“It is irresponsible and a slap in the face to San Antonio area residents with asthma and other respiratory diseases,” Burns said.

This move from CPS comes in the midst of the utility funding a major climate action plan for San Antonio that is supposed to prioritize community input. But Tuesday’s move confirmed what those who are a part of Climate Action SA Coalition already know: there’s a desperate need for more transparency and accountability at the utility.

The plan announced this week has caught the Climate Action SA coalition by surprise.

“We appreciate that CPS Energy acknowledges that this plan needs community input but if we had been at the table at the first place we would have had opportunity for meaningful collaboration, where cost and benefit assumptions are shared and discussed,” said Yaneth Flores, UTSA student and Climate Action SA coalition member.

There are now 58 cities in the nation with a commitment to 100 percent renewable energy and six—including Georgetown, TX—have met this goal. When Gold-Williams took her presentation to San Antonio’s City Council, San Antonians were there to respond:

Before Council, Gold-Williams’ above “flex gen” ambiguity was presented with sharper lines and as “could be renewables.” See slide 10 below.

Councilman John Courage asked Gold-Williams how other cities are going green while CPS Energy lags behind. She replied that these utilities were simply buying their green power. That they weren’t stuck with managing their own generation. Perhaps she misheard the question.

Denton and Austin are both moving forward as true clean-energy leaders. Both generate much of their own energy. While Denton owns shared stake in dirty plants like the Gibbons Creek Coal Plant today, the Denton City Council just voted to reach 100 percent renewable power by 2020.

If this happens through Power Purchase Agreements, that is still solar and wind in the ground. There are numerous examples of utilities who plan to do likewise in the list of other 100 percent commitments below this post.

Steering the conversation into the aspirational lane, San Antonio Mayor Nirenberg reminded his colleagues and Gold-Williams that since the utility is owned by the people of San Antonio that it is our residents who should be the ones deciding on our energy generation future.

“That provides us an opportunity to be leaders, to bake in our values into how we do business,” Nirenberg said. “To emphasize where we want to place investments, whether its to be a cleaner city, to be a greener city, to be a healthier city, and at what cost we would do that.”

The “balancing point” rests somewhere between rate affordability and public health, he added—but that this can’t be determine without going regularly into the community to hear from San Antonio’s residents.

Meanwhile clean-energy advocates weren’t having the delay.

Check minute 28:00 in video above for Nirenberg’s full comments.

Utility leaders in San Antonio have built their working plan on the sheer unknowable-ness of the future. While coal miners 100 years ago may not have been able to imagine a decentralized, low-carbon, renewable power materializing today. We can see it. The future is not unknowable.

Solar, wind, battery storage, geothermal, all are an increasingly ubiquitous reality of our lives. To neglect that for another decade or more waiting out some third generation of clean tech is to gamble our future.

“100 percent renewable energy is the bar to aim for, if San Antonio and CPS Energy want to claim they are climate leaders,” said Kaiba White of Public Citizen.

“CPS can make more affordable energy choices today. Reducing environmental and health impacts for its residents, as well as bills, is possible if the utility expands its commitment to energy efficiency, demand response, distributed solar, energy storage and utility scale renewable”

As physicist/chairman of the Rocky Mountain Institute Amory Lovins puts it: “Bulk electricity storage and fossil fuel backup are the costliest ways to make the grid flexible. So we would use them last and not first.”

He even bolsters his case by examining the case of Texas.




U.S. Cities Lapping San Antonio on Clean Energy Goals

More than 50 U.S. cities are chasing 100 percent clean energy goals. Not San Antonio.

Cities all over the United States are turning away from dangerous coal and gas plants and rapidly switching to renewable energy systems drawing on low-carbon alternatives such as wind, solar, hydro, and geothermal. However, San Antonio-owned CPS Energy has failed to update its renewable energy pledge since announcing in 2008 a 20 percent renewable goal by 2020. As CPS plays with “flex gen” (see other side)  we’re falling fast behind more motivated and visionary large and mid-sized cities around the country. Here is a short list of those cities that are actually leading the way to a clean energy future.

Already 100% Renewable
A handful of U.S. cities already receive 100 percent of their energy from renewable sources. Included among this bunch are Georgetown, TX; Aspen, CO; Greensburg, KS; Rockport, MO; Burlington, VT.

Major U.S. Cities Rushing to 100%
Here are a few examples of more than 40 U.S. cities that have committed to 100 percent clean-energy.

Denton, Texas, committed to 100 percent renewable by 2020.

Santa Barbara, CA, committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030. It also has committed to transitioning all municipal buildings and city operations to 50 percent clean energy by 2020.

Atlanta, GA, committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy across all city operations by 2025 and city-wide by 2035.

Salt Lake City, UT, committed to achieving 100 percent renewable energy for community electricity supply by 2032 and 50 percent renewable electricity for municipal operations by 2020.

San Diego, CA, committed to 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035.

Orlando, FL, committed to 100 percent renewable energy for city operations by 2030 and 100 percent renewable energy community-wide by 2050.

San Francisco committed to 100 percent renewable energy by 2030.

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