No Such Thing As a Climate Plan With A Coal Plant

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CPS Energy’s ‘Dirty’ Deely personified at Earth Day San Antonio in April 2018. Image: Deceleration

With ‘Dirty’ Deely’s retirement nearing, San Antonio’s CPS Energy hosting a hearing on keeping Spruce burning past 2040.

Greg Harman

SAN ANTONIOLumbering through the Earth Day throngs at Woodlawn Lake in April, the soot-stained “coal monster” pleaded his case.

Here were booths about solar energy, tables with native plants, and eager promoters of meat-free diets. CPS Energy, owner-operator of the City’s two coal plants, was even everywhere handing out trinkets and brochures.

But—in spite of the fact that the CPS Energy’s coal burning is responsible for sick families at home and public health crises worldwide thanks to climate disruption—no one was talking about coal.

Except the shaggy coal monster, that is.

A personified ‘Dirty’ Deely read an official press statement:

To overheat the planet, I belch out 2.7 million tons of carbon dioxide and 74 tons of methane every year.

To give you the asthma and heart attacks your medical community has come to rely on, my old parts belch out 4,175 tons of smog-forming nitrogen oxides and 19,844 tons sulfur dioxide each year.

Then there’s that my dirty little secret: 256 kg of airborne lead (just a tiny spec can mess with your baby’s brain).

In other words: I’M DOING MY JOB. I’M A COAL PLANT.

When CPS Energy shifted to heavy reliance on coal power in the 1970s, it also began to flood the air with dark soot, heavy metals, and serious greenhouse pollution—the later of which has been destabilizing of the planet’s life-supporting climate system while driving sickness at home.

It’s all in a day’s work, the monster insisted.

Yet, in spite of Deely’s reliable foulness, CPS Energy has promised to shutter the 40-year-old creature by year’s end. The utility, led then by Doyle Beneby, got a lot of favorable press out of the announcement.

“CPS Energy, the nation’s largest city-owned utility supplying both natural gas and electricity, wants to reduce its reliance on fossil-fueled generation and boost its use of renewable resources, such as wind and solar power, to 20 percent, or 1,500 megawatts, by 2020,” Inside Climate News wrote at the time.

Yet the push into renewable territory has slowed in recent years as the once rising star in clean energy has slacked off under its current leadership. Beneby spoke of $3 billion saved in neglected Deely retrofits that would be invested in solar and wind. But the utility has yet to raise its commitment to clean energy from 20-percent goal from a decade ago.

The coal monster was at Earth Day to cry foul over even that meager commitment.

Some got the joke that day. Others were more dubious. A man with an asthma inhaler ran up for a photo op and asked the man in the hairy, sooty gillie suit to pretend to strangle him.

The creature readily obliged. With 40 years of experience, chocking folks is just muscle memory.

Monster in the Closet

The effort by Climate Action SA, a climate justice coalition of dozens of members (of which Deceleration is a part), was a guerrilla education campaign.

It was intended to place the burning question of coal power at the center of the City’s public climate-action conversation. Since San Antonio Mayor Nirenberg announced in June 2017 that the the nation’s seventh largest city was at last prepared to tackle its first climate action and adaptation plan, the question of coal has been virtually MIA.

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More than 40 community organizations came to support the call for a city climate action plan. Here members of Texas Organizing Project represent at a rally in June, 2018. Image: Vanessa Ramos

Even within the Climate Action & Adaptation Plan process, the significance of coal has also been under-emphasized. Charts from the existing SA Sustainability Plan displayed during the initial round of working meetings with the San Antonio Sustainability Office and frequent CPS Energy contractor Navigant Consulting portrayed the chief carbon offenders as transportation and buildings. It was only the small print at the bottom of one slide that offered a “by the way”: half of the city’s full climate pollution is from CPS Energy.

Conversations across the various technical working groups have also failed to put coal and gas at the front of their work. (What would charge all those electric vehicles? It matters.)

To correct that oversight, Climate Action SA members will gather at City Hall on June 5 to release their goals for the San Antonio Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, goals that are intended meet the challenge of limiting global temperature rise to limit the extremity of climate chaos.

“This will be the first public discussion about what San Antonio’s greenhouse gas reduction goals should be,” said Public Citizen’s Kaiba White. “Significant and rapid reductions in greenhouse gas emissions are needed to preserve a livable climate. The easiest way to do that is to stop burning coal as soon as possible.”

Climate Goals Press Conference
Tuesday, June 5 at 11:30 AM – 12:30 PM
San Antonio City Hall
100 Military Plz, San Antonio, Texas 78205

The ambition of the international Paris Agreement that San Antonio is struggling to meet (two degrees or less of global warming) may seem small. Yet even this represents disaster for large parts of the globe.

And averting this will be extraordinarily difficult given the current deregulatory frenzy taking place in Washington, D.C., and Trump’s decision to pull the second-most-prolific climate polluter (ie. us, now the only nation walking back on Paris) out of the deal.

Still the urgency of the situation demands moving beyond the paralysis that can come with despair. It demands a sober and aggressive response. Expect as part of Climate Action SA’s adaptation recommendations a call for the prioritization of investing in local communities that are most vulnerable to the acceleration of extreme weather already underway. Violence we know with certainty will only grow in the coming years.

Also on June 5, Climate Action SA will host a Clean Energy for All Community Workshop. The event is expected to be the beginning of a campaign meant to bring community solar and energy justice to long neglected sectors of the city.

Clean Energy for All Community Workshop
Tuesday, June 5 at 6 PM – 8:30 PM
Brick at Blue Star Arts Complex
108 Blue Star, San Antonio, Texas 78204

Nail in the Coffin?

While San Antonio’s coal fleet is retracting, it is hardly disappearing.

Nearly a decade ago, community activists pushed back against millions of dollars of planned upgrades for Deely. They wanted the plant closed instead. As a result, CPS Energy pledged to close the two-unit plant by 2018. That promise quickly changed to “in” 2018. Now it looks like the major regional polluter will be burning straight through the heat of summer, the wrath of ozone season, and all the way to the end of December.

Less clear is the fate of the younger two-unit Spruce.

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CPS Energy’s Calaveras Power Station. Image: Google Maps

While the coal plants have been throttled back slightly as the utility has begun to burn more natural gas, the four units (two at Deely, two at the younger Spruce) still belch out massive amounts of pollution.

Deely, Spruce, and Brauning, the city’s largest gas plant, huddle together on the shores of Calaveras Lake south of town. All told, the complex belches 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 when it comes to trapping the sun’s heat. On top of that is the 814 tons of nitrous oxide (300 times more powerful than CO2).

The less-used Deely is to blame for 2.77 million tons of CO2 annually, as least as of 2016, the most recent year for which data is available.

The money-losing Spruce has replaced Deely as San Antonio’s biggest polluter. It is responsible for 5.54 million tons of greenhouse pollution annually. With increased use, VH Brauning grew from 700,000 metric tons to 1.4 million metric tons of CO2 between 2010 and 2016.

Outside this hot zone of hardcore climate offenders come the region’s cement plants and landfills (and other fossil fools).

RELATED: SAN ANTONIO’S 15 WORST POLLUTERS

With all of this nastiness in motion, it was a strange sight indeed to see CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams in March pull out a “flexible” vision of future power generation showing an expansion of natural gas and at least one of the Spruce units still burning coal in 2042 and possibly beyond.

While CPS Energy’s proposal envisions renewable energy additions, those additions are modest and don’t appear in any seriousness until the 2030s.

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Graph distributed in March 2018 by CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams.

As with Deely years back, community groups rallied to decry the continued reliance on Spruce.

“It’s absurd to think that we should have any coal in our energy mix anywhere close to 2042,” Terry Burns, MD, chair of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, said at the time. “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.”

Here are a few other voices weighing in on the matter:

But CPS Energy isn’t done.

The “flex” plan, they now insist, was just a conversation starter. The threat of coal being served up to future generations is to be treated as an aperitif meant to stimulate a desire for … more gas, perhaps? It’s unclear what purpose the supposed opening gambit served.

In any event, CPS Energy is taking their show on the road. Or, at least, they are holding a public hearing to take in the public’s opinion of their plan. If this follows past patterns, expect one line for the various chambers of commerce and another one for the rest of us.

No Coal San Antonio.

No Coal San Antonio.

Considering the enormity of the climate crisis, attendance just may be mandatory.

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All data from the U.S. EPA Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory and Toxic Release Inventory (2016).