Tearing at the Soul of a Climate Action Plan

Doug Melnick

San Antonio’s Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick presenting the Climate Action & Adaptation Plan to City Council on Thursday.

As climate hazards grow, CPS Energy’s CEO challenges City Council to a turf war. And they don’t even realize.

Greg Harman

“Greg, I think you’re being dramatic.”

It was the last Steering Committee meeting for San Antonio’s burgeoning Climate Action & Adaptation Plan before the reworked document went out for public comment Thursday on its way to a planned City Council vote in October.

A lot has changed in the CAAP since the first draft was released in January and subsequently pilloried by designated spokespeople from the city’s business class. The plan was also challenged regularly by those demanding aggressive interim carbon-reduction targets on the way to net-zero community-wide by 2050; sadly, those challenges—unlike those from Valero Energy, et al.—went unheeded.

By removing a complicated web of deadlines and dollar signs, the Office of Sustainability and plan advocates hope the document will prove more palatable to the business interests who resisted Version One.

Draft Climate Action & Adaptation Plan

The plan the appointed Steering Committee and CAAP Technical Working Groups reviewed last week, in the words of Brendan Gibbons at the Rivard Report, has been “stripped of its most controversial strategies to cut greenhouse gas emissions, while still asserting that San Antonio can be carbon-neutral by 2050.”

There was considerable push back from dozens of those volunteer committee members who no longer saw their work reflected in the document.

Many of the complaints have been echoed in the local media.

“Woefully short on specifics,” is how the San Antonio Express-News editorial board summed up the CAAP before placing a finger close to the plan’s greatest shortcoming.

“In our view, the question of what to do with Spruce 2 is the elephant in the room when it comes to our local discussion about climate change, emissions and electricity rates,” the editorial board opined.

Examining the document on my laptop at the horseshoe table last week, I laid out what I see as the new document’s primary and potentially fatal failing: Mitigation Strategy Number One.

“Fossil fuels,” “coal sources,” “energy capacity,” “shifting technologies.” This is the domain of CPS Energy, San Antonio’s City-owned electric and natural gas utility. Worse than failing to address Spruce head-on, the plan now formally recognizes CPS’s poorly conceived “Flex Path” as setting the pace and strategies for zeroing out its share of the climate pollution picking apart this planet’s life-support system.

The softening starts from the topline narrative.

VERSION 1 (PDF): “DECARBONIZE THE GRID. Work with CPS Energy to continue to reduce the emissions factor of supplied electricity to reach an emissions factor of 0.0 kg CO2e / kWh by 2050.”

became:

VERSION 2 (PDF): “REDUCE THE CARBON INTENSITY OF SAN ANTONIO’S ENERGY SUPPLY. Work with CPS Energy on the implementation of their ‘Flexible Path’ to drive towards carbon neutrality by 2050.”

As significant as it is to move from net-zero to “towards carbon neutrality,” CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams appears most concerned about guarding CPS Energy’s turf from perceived meddling by the public and City electeds and bureaucracy.

Gold-Williams

Gold-Williams

In a letter delivered to COSA Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick on April 25, 2019, but not supplied to the CAAP Steering Committee until last week, Gold-Williams makes her objection clear in item one of her multi-part official response to the CAAP.

“We unequivocally welcome and value feedback,” she writes. “This said, creating a new governing committee, solely focused on our environmental generation planning is problematic and presents significant challenges to our historically highly effective business model and approach.”

She continues:

“We must consider all of our investors who are our customers, as well as those who have prudently loaned us money to maintain and improve our complex systems.”

CPS Energy funded the development of the climate plan but never came to the table as did the also-publicly-owned San Antonio Water System or governmental San Antonio River Authority.

Critically, Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s belief about the possibilities for City control over the utility has shifted since delivery of Gold-Williams’s letter. At a January 2019 press conference with former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg to announce the Bloomberg Philanthropies’s selection of San Antonio for $2.5 million for climate planning assistance, Nirenberg said this:

“We have one additional great tool that we have as a public and that is [that] our energy utility, both of them, are owned by the public. So we have the ability to set policy directly based on the priorities of the climate plan.”

However, rolling out Version 2 to the CAAP Technical Working Groups on August 12, 2019, Nirenberg said:

“Please know the City of San Antonio does own CPS Energy but we can only go so far in terms of what we ratify and plan for them.”

The influence of Gold-Williams’s comments is remarkable. After a year-long public process involving roughly 90 volunteer committee members at monthly two- and three-hour meetings, critical resources drawn from UTSA, the City’s Office of Sustainability, and high-dollar consulting firm Navigant, the CPS CEO was able to swoop in and gain critical if subtle changes without ever so much as bringing them forward for group discussion along the way. Then she suggests with the seriousness of utility letterhead that CPS’s current community engagement model is totally sufficient.

More than the plan works to address the initial objections of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce or SA Manufacturers Association, Version 2 strains to accommodate Gold-Williams’s principal objection: sharing power. Swapping out “initiate” for “continue” in Mitigation One strikes down with a word the mildest shift to collaborative generation decision-making.

“VERSION ONE: Initiate an ongoing energy planning process between the City, CPS energy, key stakeholders, and the general public to ensure continued collaboration towards carbon reduction goals.”

became:

“VERSION TWO: Continue energy planning between the City, CPS Energy, key stakeholders, and the general public to ensure continued collaboration towards carbon reduction goals.”

Other questions arise.

Reaching neutrality though “renewable or other carbon-free resources,” new language in Version Two, appears to hinge upon disputed definitions of nuclear power. The South Texas Project nuclear complex is expected to continue supplying 1,000 megawatts of power to the City until at least 2042, the last year on CPS’s Flex timeline.

And coal? The same Flex Path built upon running aging nuclear reactors a dozen miles off the Gulf Coast as storms and seas rise also relies on burning coal—if at a reduced level—from JK Spruce into the 2040’s.

The people of San Antonio built strong cases against CPS Energy’s “historically highly effective business model and approach” on multiple occasions, including the wisdom of building new nuclear power and the construction of Spruce.

CPS Energy lost more than $390 million of taxpayer money on its failed bid to expand the South Texas Project nuclear complex. And the coal plant, we now know with near certainty, will be losing tens of millions per year going forward compared against the cost of building new renewables and battery power ready to take its place.

Today, San Antonio’s City Council responded to the release of Version Two. There were statements about the need for deep “stakeholder support,” community buy-in, and avoiding economic burden on low-income residents. Councilmember John Courage, sounding a lot like former Councilmember Greg Brockhouse in his fight against Version One, declared he will withhold his support until every single policy recommendation is fully fleshed out, hung with a price tag, and embraced by the public. (This looks a lot like obstructionism when one considers the dozens of policy recommendations are, well, recommendations, not policy. The only ostensibly binding measure here is the ultimate arrival at 2050.) Meanwhile, Councilmember Rebecca Viagran expressed perhaps similar confusion over the nature of the CAAP. “Is it a plan, is it a framework, is it a strategy?”

Melnick and team at the Office of Sustainability have until the October 17 vote to straighten out these concerns. But first will come a vote on the “goal” of 2050 net-zero by the CPS Board of Directors in September; the significance of that vote is unclear. That’s because the Flex Path, the utility’s guiding principle now embedded in the CAAP, in its very essence opposes firm commitments and hard deadlines.

CPS rejected public input during past fights over coal plants and nuclear power. Likewise, critiques of the Flex Path schedule have been swept aside. In her letter, Gold-Williams insists our City-owned utility will not be held to account by a City climate plan implementing a more cooperative generation planning process. It has “other investors” to appease first.

Flex Path graph first distributed in March 2018 by CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams. “Flex Gen” has been described by Gold-Williams as a power source to be determined … or possibly invented.

If a climate plan can’t crack the governance at CPS Energy, if there is no way to hold them to account, what does a 2050 net-zero goal mean?

This is my question to the Office of Sustainability, to the City of San Antonio, to whoever was listening at that closed-door Steering Committee meeting last week. It’s then that the facilitator suggests we bundle up my concerns about CPS for deposit into the plan’s appendix. “Are you OK with that?” she asks.

Really?

For starters, enshrining CPS as the unchallenged authority on energy generation decisions makes gaining new controls going forward ever more difficult. And if we have to wait 3-5 years for the next CAAP update, as is likely should Version Two be approved as is, the odds of scrubbing Spruce’s 7.5 million metric tons of greenhouse pollution from the air as early as is required grow frighteningly long. If we leave it to the Flex Path and its apparent (fungible) retirement schedule for one coal unit in the 2030’s and the second … when? … we will be helping usher in extreme climate chaos and blowing past the 1.5-degree threshold that too few are committed to beating.

“Greg, I think you’re being dramatic,” the facilitator responds.

I’m shocked and then angry.

I understand the relativism she and others advance.

JK Spruce could keep running indefinitely while the planet still wriggles through the 1.5-degree bottleneck. Sure. We are, as one former councilmember liked to remind, a drop in the proverbial carbon sink. But that sort of thinking rejects both our moral obligation to stop contributing to global crisis and the fact of our deeply uncertain footing making success all the more improbable.

Gripped by the violence of a corrupt regime rabidly attacking climate science while grasping at the mineral wealth of thawing Arctic lands, we are witnessing the pressing reality of our over-heating planet as the last global forests burn and methane bombs accumulate across the world’s fracklands and thawing permafrost. Abandoned by the White House, the only possible path forward is in the collective unity of communities, of cities, of states, of sovereign indigenous nations, all moving with shared alarm and deadlines.

Here are the dramatics and the tragedy, playing out before us.

The Steering Committee and various Technical Working Groups rarely talk about the Great Unraveling of our earth’s life-supporting services. There are no updates on the state of the science, no shared unburdening of hearts and minds overwhelmed by the images of lands submerging, of heat deaths and droughts, of the violence targeting those who dare to stand up to defend the stranded remains of our dwindling number of functioning ecosystems.

To speak of fears and angers in this treacherous time is to be estranged even while climate planning.

But to call for CPS Energy be brought to heel needn’t be. Our mayor, our council, our communities must rise to rein in our utility, to listen and learn from visions of a just energy transition, and shared decision-making as we together put the “public” back in City Public Service.

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