Analysis San Antonio

Climate Plan: Who Controls CPS Energy?

SA Climate Ready Town Hall.
CPS employee moderating discussion at SA Climate Ready Town Hall. February, 2018. Image: Greg Harman

SA climate planners claim lack of ‘operational control’ over City-owned utility excuses millions of tons of pollution.

Nearly 40 percent of City-owned CPS Energy’s climate pollution may not be accounted for in the city’s first-ever climate action plan. The Climate Action & Adaption Plan was announced last summer with $500,000 of seed money set aside for researchers at UTSA, though most of that has since been rerouted to a private consulting firm.

The plan’s ambition is to help meet the goals of the international Paris Agreement by helping keep global warming under 2 degrees Celsius while also preparing the local residents for accelerating extreme weather.

However, in a draft inventory of the city’s greenhouse gases released late last month, managers of the burgeoning Climate Action & Adaption Plan suggest that 37.7 percent of CPS Energy’s 11.34 million tons of annual greenhouse emissions should not be included in that reduction scheme.

Among the justifications for exclusion is the suggestion that San Antonio doesn’t have “operational control” over the utility it owns.

The assertion by representatives of the Office of Sustainability and Navigant Consulting cuts to the heart of long-standing community grievances over how the utility is—or rather, is not—managed.

In the recently released San Antonio Greenhouse Inventory (below) only emissions from electricity that CPS sells inside the city limits are allowed for. Anything outside of that is explicitly left to the utility to handle.

[Public comments are being accepted on the inventory until July 31, 2018. Submit your comments here.]

06.28.18 2016 GHG Inventory Draft Final

“CPS Energy will track emissions for their broader service area and will have comprehensive initiatives to reduce emissions to benefit the entire area,” the report states.

It was an accounting recommendation met with skepticism by some steering committee members at a meeting last week.

“I consider CPS Energy owned by the City and operated by the City,” said steering member Peter Bella.

“To keep with Paris on a global scale, I don’t know how relevant the City of San Antonio’s boundaries are,” he continued. “When I think of the demands that climate change represents I’m going to be very ‘antennae up’ when it comes to conversations that look at less than we can do.”

Doug Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer running point on the plan, agreed with points of the critique but cautioned that getting the plan passed had to be the priority.

“This is our first plan, it’s really important,” Melnick said. “We want to make sure this plan gets done, adopted, sticks, and is implemented. … The goal is this thing needs to pass.”

But to truly transform San Antonio and meet our obligations in this process, it’s critical to be realistic about our emissions.

A representative of CPS Energy at the meeting said that any reductions made under the utility’s current energy plans would indiscriminately reduce emissions generated both in the production of energy for City residents and for those outside the City boundary.

The statement only further put into question why those 4.27 million tons were being closeted. (Or the “missing millions” from cement kilns, heavy industry, or the military.)

This in spite of the fact that best practices among greenhouse protocols, such as the US Community Protocol, require inclusion of “all emissions from energy production and energy use in energy industries,” as well as “all emissions from the generation of energy for grid-distributed electricity, steam, heat and cooling.”

The top three questions the Protocol asks cities to consider when identifying areas over which they have most influence, include: Do I own it? Do I have operational control? Do I have regulatory authority over it?

Who Owns CPS?

The lack of transparency and community engagement at CPS Energy have been sore points for clean energy advocates and social and environmental activists for decades. So, in many ways, this question of emissions is a perfect opportunity to hash that out.

Let’s start with the broad strokes of this power dynamic at Texas Government Code Section 1502.070, “Management and Control of Utility System.”

There we see that while CPS is indeed a City-owned utility, day-to-day management and many other key tasks are assigned out to an appointed Board of Trustees, composed of four members and San Antonio’s sitting mayor.

This Board appoints and manages CPS Energy’s executive officers—the CEO, COO, various VP’s, etc. Like a corporation, the CEO and management oversee day-to-day operations. The Board receives regular reports from management and holds monthly meetings.

However, it is the San Antonio Antonio City Council that appoints those trustees and defines the scope of their duties and authority. It is the San Antonio City Council that controls utility rate adjustments, the issuing of bonds, decides cases of eminent domain, and sets policy at a broad level.

It is the City that placed power in the hands of a Board of Trustees—power they can also take away. If sufficiently motivated, the Council could adopt an arrangement whereby the City Council becomes the Board of Trustees, such as is practiced in Austin.

CPS employees at a recent community fair. Image: Greg Harman

San Antonio City Ordinance:

The Board of Trustees, in exercising the management powers granted herein, will ensure that policies adopted affecting research, development, and corporate planning will be consistent with City Council policy, and policies adopted by the Board of Trustees pertaining to such matters will be subject to City Council review.

It could be argued that the board arrangement, often used to define the utility’s distance from the Council, is actually an tool of “operational control” on behalf of the City.  It is indisputably the Council that leads in this dance.

If—and, yeah, we’re dreaming big here—San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg declared tomorrow, “We’re taking San Antonio to net-zero carbon on all energy generation by 2030,” CPS would be forced to swing into action.

All Numbers Matter

What do the various accounting methodologies used by cities around the country and world have to say about utility emissions and other polluting sectors?

Across the board, they encourage more reporting, not less.

When in doubt: estimate.

The U.S. Community Protocol for Accounting and Reporting of Greenhouse Gas Emissions, suggests time and again that cities go bigger rather than shallower in what they include.

It is anticipated “but not required” that cities like San Antonio focus their work on “emission sources and activities over which they have significant influence.” They may also choose to widen their scope to those areas they don’t have regulatory authority over—such as “emissions that result from activities such as the use of energy, materials, and services by all members of the community. These emissions may be occurring within or outside of the community boundary.”

ICLEI, which developed that protocol, is skeptical of decisions to leave out these broader emissions, since failing to do so “provides a much less complete story of how the community contributes to climate change, as many community activities … contribute to emissions from trans-boundary sources.”

ICLEI, is an acronym for the International Council for Local Environmental Initiatives, now known simply as Local Governments for Sustainability.

San Antonio’s CAAP leadership chose to take its direction from the Global Protocol for Community-Scale Greenhouse Gas Emission Inventories, to which ICLEI also contributed.

Here again, cities like San Antonio are encouraged to consider the more stringent accounting techniques—especially if trans-boundary transportation, industrial, and/or agricultural greenhouse contributions are found to be significant contributors to local conditions.

If we are really trying to do an “apples to apples” comparison, as encouraged at last week’s steering committee meeting, the standard should not be the chosen BASIC methodology, but a more inclusive standard called BASIC+.

(Watch meeting video here.)

According to the adopted GHG Protocol:

BASIC+ involves more challenging data collection and calculation processes, and additionally includes emissions from [industry] and [agriculture/forestry] and transboundary transportation.

Therefore, where these sources are significant and relevant for a city, the city should aim to report according to BASIC+. The sources covered in BASIC+ also align with sources required for national reporting in IPCC guidelines.

IPCC is the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change—the international body coordinating global climate science research and providing the most reliable reporting on which national climate responses are founded.

Lack of reliable data was also offered as an excuse for not including big chunks of local industrial emissions (See: “SA’s Climate Plan Could Hide Tons of Emissions”).

Yet where data is scarce, the GHG Protocol is forgiving.

Data can be gathered from a variety of sources, including government departments and statistics agencies, a country’s national GHG inventory report, universities and research institutes, scientific and technical articles in environmental books, journals and reports, and sector experts/stakeholder organizations.

In general, it is preferable to use local and national data over international data, and data from publicly available, peer-reviewed and reputable sources, often available through government publications.

In other words, use what you have and go forward from there.

Essentially, it’s Melnick’s message. But with the numbers.


The answer is yes.

San Antonio must slash its climate emissions.

We are morally obligated to do everything we can to slow and reverse climate change for those families being devastated by increasingly violent weather events right now and for those generations to come who we have already overburdened with an existential challenge.

To accomplish this, we must clearly identify the largest culprits, the coal and gas plants powering the city, as well as the cement kilns, gas-guzzling transportation, military bases, and our landfills.

Without attacking pollution from all of these sources, without a realistic target as we can get, there is literally no way we can accomplish our task.