Reporting San Antonio

CPS Energy Proposes Moving ‘Beyond Coal’ by 2030

youth climate strike
Standing up for climate action at a Youth Climate Strike action in September 2019. Image: Greg Harman

After years of community pressure and, most recently, a petition that would have forced the JK Spruce Coal Plant to shutter, San Antonio’s City-owned utility starts facing reality.

Greg Harman

On Monday, January 25, CPS Energy officials announced they have charted a possible course “beyond coal” for San Antonio. In a pair of presentations and running dialogue with the City-owned utility’s Board of Trustees, staff referenced a study provided to the Board earlier in the day that examines closing both of JK Spruce’s coal units and replacing them with clean-energy options and storage by 2030. Another scenario studied would close the 28-year-old Spruce 1 but convert the 10-year-old Spruce 2 unit to run on gas.

Last year, the utility’s leadership issued a global call for proposals to replace roughly 1,400MW of older gas units with 900MW of solar and 500MW of “firming capacity” in the next few years as part of the FlexPOWER Bundle. This replacement scenario would follow roughly the same model.

CEO Paula Gold-Williams and Chief Operating Office Cris Eugster discussed the possibilities and challenges of a coal-free future in broad strokes, but the report itself intended for public release was quickly retracted by Board members who complained they had little time to review it for themselves.

In typical bombastic style, Trustee Ed Kelly launched first.

CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams.

“I’d like to see this report stamped ‘competitive information,’ ‘personal,’ ‘confidential,’ ‘not to be released,’ until I am confident … that this is information that should be shared outside of the company,”  Kelly said. “This [report] is our playbook and if I ran the Dallas Cowboys I would not hand my playbook to the other NFL teams. And that is what I think we would be doing here if we don’t protect this information.”

It’s unclear what competing team Kelly imagines himself contending with. While CPS does buy and sell energy into the state’s open ERCOT electricity market, as a City-owned utility most of its business is selling into a captive market of ratepayers who have no choice about where to purchase their power.

The report, cited as the Flexible Path Resource Plan (see embedded presentations below), was generated to inform public dialogue around potentially retiring the Spruce coal plant, a necessary step to meet the City’s (and CPS’s) climate commitments. A rocky release, however, was guaranteed by the fact that a document one member described as “an inch thick” only reached the Trustees hours before the Monday meeting.

Still, Trustee Willis Mackey was effusive in his reception of the almost-public report, saying that he had been asking for such information for two years. But rather than calling staff to the carpet for making him wait so long, he praised Gold-Williams for the product he held in his hands.

“I want to thank Ms. Gold-Williams because I’ve been asking for this for two years. To have this document, to understand our plan, the path that we’re going, the direction that we’re going, and it has hit everything that I asked her to do,” Mackey said.

“I can’t say enough about the document that you just gave me. I’ve been waiting for this for two years. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” he added.

While Mayor Nirenberg insisted the report was “clearly marked as a public document” and should be released, the group ultimately sided with Kelly’s logic after discussing the matter further in closed session. On Friday, Mayor Nirenberg reiterated his position, saying the delay “must be short and the document made public quickly.” As a Board decision, that likely means not until the next Board meeting on February 22, 2021.

The study’s botched rollout signals the beginning of a series of online town halls intended to generated dialogue about the report’s findings around the potential coal-diminishing shift. It generated social media snark from some and outrage from others, including the opinion page editor of the San Antonio Express-News.

Closing the coal plant has been a central for many community organizations and the broader environmental justice movement for years in San Antonio. The subject has also been a non-starter under the leadership of CEO Gold-Williams, who suggested as recently as October that climate activists were members of an ideology with unreasonable economic exceptions of a clean-energy transition. (“Everything people want to do (for) ideology costs money, she said at the time. “We don’t print money.”)

Even during the creation of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (PDF), which CPS’s Board ultimately supported, City staff and volunteer committee members were denied any data around the operation of the coal plant.

In a presentation months after CAAP adoption, a now former senior CPS staff member presenting to a loosely organized coalition known as the CPS Quarterly Environmental Stakeholders that the utility had ultimately run the numbers on early retirement to meet the group’s repeated demands. But, he said, the modeling proved to be so complicated, full of so many variables, that the results were ultimately “meaningless” and not worth sharing.

Soon after, in early 2020, Mario Bravo of the Environmental Defense Fund and the facilitator of the meetings between CPS and the Environmental Stakeholders, resigned unexpectedly, issuing scalding statements (PDF) about the failure of the utility to meet “in good faith.”

“When a group of stakeholders bring forward ideas on how to improve our utility, I want them to be treated with respect,” he wrote. “I believe that if we all put our minds together and challenge each other’s ideas in a productive and respectful manner, we can overcome our biggest obstacles and achieve great things.”

Nearly a year later, with no progress made on the coal front, several local organizations operating as Recall CPS launched a petition to disband the board and force the coal plant to close by 2030. Though the COVID-19-era effort would come in 6,000 shy of the 20,000 signatures required, the effort generated a new wave of community support to put the coal plant on this year’s May ballot and stirred high anxiety within the offices at CPS and City Hall.

Suddenly, here we are, with a report containing in detail what the community has sought for years, an early retirement scenario … pending release.

[For a 20-minute overview of the Spruce struggle, see: “San Antonio’s Problem with CPS Energy“]

For an overview of the report, skip ahead to the Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster’s Monday presentation below, followed by the CEO’s monthly updates. For those with a stomach to digest a full four-hours-plus conversation with occasional dollops of disinfo blended in, there’s a link to an audio recording of the entire meeting at the utility’s website.

In introducing the concepts contained in the report, Eugster was matter-of-fact about the proposed way forward:

“This really is a new flexible path resource plan, one that addresses the aging gas steam units that we’ve talked about for a while, as well as moves us beyond coal this decade before 2030,” Eugster said.

This inspired quick sanitizing by Gold-Williams, who interrupts:

“The flexible path resource plan is not that we’ve decided that coal comes out. It is an option of consideration,” she said. “We’re just showing you we can keep going, we can go a little bit further down the path, we can go in the middle. We’re not saying the plan is a recommendation, it is a view of options.”

The meetings are streamed for the public as audio only (yes, I know), but you can click a play button below and follow along with the embedded PowerPoints. Prior to Eugster’s presentation, you’ll hear Kelly take a shot at Mayor Nirenberg and caution the COO to keep his presentation to the Board (and, your know, all of us) a “high level overview.”

He is introduced by Kelly’s push back on the Mayor’s openness to releasing “pretty sensitive stuff.”

LISTEN: COO Cris Eugster, “Generation Planning Update”

LISTEN: CEO Paula Gold-Williams, “CEO’s Report”

Interestingly, Monday’s criss-crossed coal wires coincided with release of a national Sierra Club report “The Dirty Truth About Utility Climate Pledges” shocking CPS Energy with a withering 6 points out of a possible 100 for its absolute failure to plan a way off of coal. (Disclosure for new/unsuspecting readers: the Sierra Club is my primary employer, check the About page, as you always should as an informed news consumer.)

As the “Dirty Truth” report’s press release notes:

“While CPS Energy received positive credit for the recently issued Request for Proposal (RFP) for an impressive 900 MW of solar, no credit was received in the scoring for the 500 MW of “all-source” firming capacity in that same RFP because a resource has not yet been identified. CPS also has not ruled out gas as a resource.”

Even with a delayed report release, even if the report makes an economically unflattering case for transition, the crack in the coal dam has been made. And while we can expect to see counter pressure from a variety of interest groups, including local lobbyists funded to keep the Wyoming trains rolling to San Antonio, while we know the PowerPoint Gold-Williams uses consistently warns of the cost of energy conservation and clean energy without ever including the economic benefit, we also know the transition is inevitable.

With the wellbeing of all life in the balance, there’s the obvious moral case for rapid climate action. For those who are indifferent to mass extinction and collapsing ecosystems, as long as IKEA and HEB stay stocked, there’s the not insignificant argument for self-preservation.

There’s the invalidation of traditional excuses against a clean-energy transition by coal-heavy interests as the cost of renewables and storage solutions continue to crater. Add in the flip of administrations in Washington, D.C., already bringing a wash of climate actions and gathering of administrative sticks and carrots to facilitate the shift at the state and local level and the only question remainingas it has these last decades fighting the construction of new coal—is how long people will allow their utilities and political leaders to delay.

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