Analysis San Antonio

CPS Energy Must Stop Shutting Off People’s Power—For Good

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Disconnects by CPS Energy have doubled during CEO Paula Gold-Williams’ tenure. And there are still no promises of reform.

Greg Harman

Across San Antonio, the virus was hunting. Food insecurity was high. Mass layoffs and terminations rolled on. And it was hot. Hundred-degree days scorched much of July.

Yet the lights and air conditioners—for the first time in many, many summers—were staying on reliably for rich and poor alike across the city. Every side of town. Every block. For thousands of poor families across the city who routinely struggle to keep up with their utility payments, this was perhaps the one gift of a deadly pandemic: a pause on forced electricity disconnections for nonpayment.

Had this been a typical San Antonio summer, tens of thousands of residents would have been sweating out at least part of their June and July with no electricity.

Since the pandemic struck, however, these disconnections—up to nearly 100,000 some years—have been on hold. Across the country, utilities like City-owned CPS Energy—some voluntarily, most by decree—prioritized human wellbeing over profit.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council members, faced with the compounding tragedy that is the virus and its disproportionate punishment of poor folks and people of color (locally, Latinx communities most of all), have pledged to build a new world—a post-COVID world beyond the structural racism and economic oppression that made San Antonio, the most racially and economically segregated large US city, particularly vulnerable to the virus.

Council promises, however, have so far failed to center the opportunities surrounding energy reform and CPS Energy, the largest contributor of San Antonio’s General Fund—and source of so much of this newly decried structural racism and nearly half of our climate pollution.

In an attempt to force the issue, nearly two dozen community organizations penned an Open Letter  to Mayor Ron Nirenberg and the City Council last month. Top of the list of recommended policy reforms intended to spur recovery from the impact of COVID-19 was a call for the elimination of disconnections as policy for any residents at or below 200 percent of the federal poverty line.

It was a letter I submitted on the group’s behalf.

Here’s the relevant excerpt:

    1. End the Policy of Utility Disconnections for Most Vulnerable Families

Until the novel coronavirus appeared in San Antonio, CPS Energy was cutting power to roughly 100,000 households and businesses every year for non-payment. While disconnections are currently paused in response to the economic crisis that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic, other city-owned utilities have begun returning to disconnecting power to the most vulnerable households for non-payment, and it’s just a matter of time before CPS Energy returns to their former behavior. To give ratepayers more security than a 30-day warning, we call on CPS Energy to publicly commit to ending disconnections until, at least, February 2021.

CPS must eliminate completely the policy of disconnections for nonpayment for all households at or below 200% of the poverty level. Additionally, we call for a third-party audit of existing payment assistance programs and a study of the potential impacts of rate-structure changes that could significantly reduce the costs to overburdened lower-income neighborhoods. We note that CPS Energy enacted a temporary pause on disconnections in the early days of this pandemic–the same day Councilmembers called for such a pause. While Council members have historically resisted engagement with CPS Energy because of power distinctions set in the Charter agreement, the Mayor and Council have a tremendous amount of political authority to set our energy agenda when they choose to use it.

{Support the call for ending disconnections at Action Network.}

This movement for the elimination of disconnections as policy was spurred along, in part, by revelations about the sizable scale of suffering involved.

As a colleague of mine working as a Democracy & Clean Energy intern at the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club, Shaneal Harun filed a state open records request with CPS in February to find out how common these disconnections were. The answer, it turns out, is very.

CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams

Though CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams consistently downplays the numbers involved, the utility disconnects power to tens of thousands of homes and businesses per year. I first wrote about the disconnections for San Antonio Report in July (republished here at Deceleration).

At that point I hadn’t noticed how significantly different the numbers were under each CEO.

While state unemployment rates declined year by year from 8.3 percent in 2010 to 3.5 percent in 2019, it has been under Gold-Williams’s watch over these last few years that disconnects have soared.

Milton Lee served as CPS CEO from 2002 to 2010. During this time disconnects hovered around 50,000 per year.

CEO Doyle Beneby reduced disconnections for nonpayment during his tenure from 2010 to 2015, keeping them under 50,000 until the year of his departure, when they leapt to 72,000. (Beneby left CPS in September, 2015. He was named CEO of New Generation Power International on October 1, 2015.)

Gold-Williams was named CEO in the summer of 2016. That year, disconnections soared to the second highest point for which we have records: 90,837. The most disconnections, however, occurred two years later, after she was well settled in as CEO.

Shutoffs remained unusually high in 2017 at 75,131, but hit a new peak under Gold-Williams at 99,908 in 2018 before starting to slow in 2019 with 53,391 total disconnections for nonpayment.

Harun originally sought records dating back to 2000, but CPS Legal Services Attorney Stacey Cormican wrote that no data existed prior to 2003 “due to a change in our reporting hardware and software.”

Check the data for yourself:

CPS Energy Nonpayment Disconnect Report (2003-2019)

Harun was not entirely surprised by what they found.

Shaneal Harun

“Some of the numbers I saw, such as the number of summer shutoffs across ZIP Codes, certainly surprised me in relation to CPS Energy’s claims that they don’t perform shutoffs during extreme weather conditions such as heat waves,” they said. “Other numbers were less surprising, [reflecting] the existing inequities in San Antonio.”

Given the amount of time Harun spent researching the utility’s board of trustees during their time with the Sierra Club, Harun even may have expected worse.

“I found that the current Trustees reflected, at best, an ideological slant towards corporate interests and corporate style governance and, at worst, substantial ties to halls of power populated by the most powerful actors in San Antonio—oil and gas, real estate, and other industrial interests in particular,” they said.

So far, the coalition’s Open Letter and call for an end to disconnects has made hardly a ripple in the local political fabric.

The only response from Council came in an automated confirmation of receipt from the office of District 7 Councilmember Ana Sandoval. The mayor’s office is aware of the letter but has yet to respond publicly to its contents.

As a new wave of COVID-19 is manifesting, utilities around the country, from Alabama to Colorado and beyond, have returned to policies of disconnections for nonpayment, according to another colleague, Mary Anne Hitt, the Sierra Club’s national director of campaigns, writing in The Hill. With apparent disinterest marking most of the elected leadership in San Antonio, there is no reason to hope that we are headed to any changes in CPS’s disconnection policies, even as Gold-Williams promises to bring a rate increase request to Council next year.

CPS also hasn’t responded to the call for an end to disconnects. However, last month, about two weeks after the Open Letter was released, Gold-Williams pledged the moratorium on disconnections would remain through the end of the year.

True, Gold-Williams may be considered otherwise occupied, having her job (and last remaining coal plant) under threat by a recall petition likely advancing to the 2021 ballot. To this immediate personal threat, she has taking to bashing climate-action advocates while standing alongside heads of the San Antonio Chamber, where she herself briefly served as chair before resigning under public pressure.

Those organized for climate action as part of the Recall CPS petition she dismisses as advancing “an ideology” rather than a critical policy shift supported by international climate science and San Antonio’s own Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (PDF).

With stirring echoes of San Antonio, Hitt assesses the COVID-era national utility landscape this way:

Some are still sinking billions of dollars into botched nuclear plants and want to spend billions more on gas infrastructure that will be uncompetitive in less than a decade. Others are similarly holding onto coal, chasing nuclear and gas and sticking families with the bill. And as these companies dump billions into polluting projects and shut off power to low-income families, their CEOs are taking home multi-million dollar salaries.

Though COVID-scolded CPS executives went without bonuses this year, Gold-Williams’s take home in 2019 was $930,669, according to the San Antonio Report, making her (by a long way) San Antonio’s highest-paid employee.

At the other end of the economic spectrum are those hundreds of thousands being punished by by CPS’s business-as-usual cutoffs, expected soon to make a return.

Considering that three people live in an average San Antonio household, it would follow that in 2018 roughly 300,000 people were cut off by CPS at some point in the year from a source of refrigeration for foods and medicine, light to study by at night, and air conditioning to stay healthy/alive. That is, if most of those disconnections were homes rather than businesses, which seems likely.

That’s 300,000 in a city of 1,500,000.

The summer-month cutoffs are certainly particularly cruel, but in a city where residents in upper-income ZIP Codes tend to outlive those in historically neglected Southside communities by decades, the practice of stripping power from those struggling to improve their lot is unconscionable whatever time of year.

What city can prosper like this?

What Council committed to dismantling structural violence can permit it?

As the call for reform at the Action Network states:

The impact of COVID-19 has laid bare San Antonio’s glaring income and health disparities between white residents and people of color. A raft of factors are behind these grim inequities: exposure to air pollution from fossil-fueled car and truck traffic; lack of access to greenspace and healthy food; redlining and racist development patterns and policing; rising temperatures driven by the engines of climate change and dirty power plants; and zoning that permits industrial operations near schools and neighborhoods.

Eliminating disconnections is just the first step toward elevating those long alienated from political power in the City. We’ll see how deep our leaders evolving public commitment to resisting racism as a public health threat really is in the months ahead.

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