Reporting San Antonio

Texas Clean Energy Debate Enters a Polar Vortex

Detail from global temperature map displaying wind patterns. Image: World Weather Online

Blistering Arctic weather poured into Texas this week, freezing wind farms and complicating debate over a needed transition to renewable energy.

Greg Harman

Two weeks ago, San Antonio’s city-owned utility, CPS Energy, published the Flexible Path Resource Plan (PDF), a report purporting to forecast the cost of moving off coal power by 2030. Among the three models used, the one deemed the best choice for local pocketbooks continues coal burning until at least 2045. The scenario reflecting a complete swap of renewable energy sources for coal-burning JK Spruce’s 1,300 megawatts came with the greatest cost increase: a 15-year average of $11.53 per month per residential bill.

Taken on its own, it’s something of a garbage study. The assumptions used for the three cases appear designed to flunk renewables. It’s not just that external costs of coal pollution are ignored, meaning the coal “tax,” paid for in increased rates of childhood asthma, heart attacks, and premature death. It’s not only flawed because it fails to factor into its analysis the so-called social costs of carbon, ie. the cost of the plant’s contribution to climate disruption. It’s a failure by design, in that the purported cost of the cleanest option is premised upon full plant retirement in 2023.

By comparison, the coal-friendly option takes until 2029 to close just the first unit. Collecting my own thoughts on the study, this was the headline I was working with: “CPS Energy’s Coal Retirement Study Designed to Flunk Renewables.” And it’s still true. But the energy conversation got complicated for many this week after the jet stream normally encircling the Arctic winds loosened, sending a great sea of freezing air spilling over the Great Plains and across Texas. Frozen West Texas wind farms and compromised solar farms offer a narrative shift about the value—and availability—of energy. To wind’s defense, the state’s coastal turbines are spinning so hard that they are offsetting some of the power loss at the West Texas farms, according to the Austin American-Statesmen. But there is no way around it: the dim skies and freezing rain mean clean energy is in an depression-shaped slump this week. (And it’s not good formula for Texas drivers, whether gas- or battery-powered, as we saw in the tragic 100-plus vehicle pileup that killed six late last week and hospitalized dozens.)

“We are experiencing record-breaking electric demand due to the extreme cold temperatures … [and] higher-than-normal generation outages due to frozen wind turbines and limited natural gas supplies available to generating units.”

— Bill Magness, CEO Electric Reliability Council of Texas

Home solar production collapsing with the arrival of dim, icy Arctic weather.

As I write from our 80-year-old home on the near West Side, there are icicles running along the eaves. Our heat-loving papaya tree’s leaves are caught in freeze frame, splayed green fingers frosted stiff but already dead. Inside, we’ve sealed off most of the rooms in the house, holding greedily what heat we can derive from a trio of space heaters in the front room.

CPS Energy’s free weatherization program blew a generous snowdrift of insulation into the attic years ago, but the warped rubber stripping across the gaps in the peeling windows and across the threshold of the front door do little to keep us secure from the wind.

It’s an old house, like so many thousands of San Antonio homes. The streets are marked by plastic tarps over incomplete renovation jobs, missing windows, slowly collapsing foundations. Across our roof, the solar panels are an ice-darkened slate. And our production is suffering, meaning we’re equally subject to the spiking cost of energy.  If we could afford one, a wall battery would secure us for a day or two, but not for a week of bleakness.

Alerts on Sunday from the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) and our local utility, CPS Energy, warned of a straining electric grid. Scattered outages turned into rolling blackouts across our city and state.

Listen to the CPS Energy robocall from Sunday:

People are being urged to dial back their thermostats and bundle up as likely millions prepare to face their first taste of 10-degree weather—for the next several days in a row. And while working families across the city are doing what they can to help, we’re still waiting for news from the region’s largest companies and military installations about their energy-reduction strategies.

It’s only a matter of hours before the scurrilous distortions of grandstanding politicians or groups like the Texas Public Policy Foundation roll into the comment sections of local media sites. Those who have vigorously defended the fossil fuels that are killing us will level inverse accusations against “the environmentalists”: that efforts to bring about a clean-energy transition are actually what are putting lives at risk.

{UPDATE: In spite of the spin on wind, it’s gas, coal, and nuclear (and really bad planning) that are chiefly responsible for plunging millions into blackouts this week in Texas.}

Besides the issue of actual fault in this current crisis, what this accusation misses is the core demand that animates most of today’s environmental movement, that the transition we are fighting for must be a just transition. And in that way, we commit to recognizing complications. We know the language of opportunism can appear on all sides of the debate, while the actual needs of people and the land are ignored.

So it’s worth stating a few understoods:

  • Texas is a land of extremes, leading the nation in billion-dollar weather disasters, extremes only amplified by the climate crisis. Our energy portfolio thus needs to be prepared to protect all people while protecting the integrity of the living systems we rely upon.
  • A propane tank delivery and reliable stream of “dirty” electrons from a coal-fired power plant can both be life-savers, as they are certainly right now for many. That does not make them benevolent energy sources or erase their contribution to our planet’s dangerous overheating.
  • Global warming contributes to the destabilization of the jet stream responsible for this great flood of icy winds, in the same way it is increasing temperatures year-round and lengthening our summers.
  • Investment in energy storage systems and energy conservation are critical in making a transition to safer energy sources that are able to withstand the full range of extreme weather—including extended freezes.
  • While this Arctic blast is extreme, dangerous and unfamiliar, a psychic shock as well as a sudden threat to life, especially for the unhoused, it will also pass. It may be in the teens (or lower) over the next several nights but we’ll be back into the 70’s before this time next week.

Summer comes fast in South Texas. And that will be extreme and dangerous, too, though in a very familiar—even family-like—way. This familiarity means the excess deaths from heat exposure likely won’t be tracked, nor will those motivated politically to (correctly) point out the current shortcomings of renewables during a polar vortex voice an opinion on the role our energy systems have played in that suffering.

It’s cold. Here. But when discussing global warming it’s always good to take the global temperature. Here’s a map that displays Sunday’s temperature anomalies; those areas colder than normal for this time of year are shades of blue, while those that are hotter are red. The truth remains that in this time of weather extremes hotter-than-average events exceed colder-than-average by a factor of two to one.

Via the Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine.

So how does all this fit in with CPS Energy’s report on coal retirements?

For one, declarations about the vulnerability of current renewable energy systems play upon the same lie that those with political and economic power reliably spread about those fighting for climate action. That is, that we always want to close the coal plant tomorrow (or even “today,” as Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolf said when speaking against the recent Recall CPS campaign).

The fact is, even for a supposedly “radical” agenda, the Recall campaign would have forced Spruce to close by 2030—not the 2023, as CPS is modeling. The call of activists in San Antonio has always been to commit to a closure and path to cleaner energy sources in a way that particularly protects those who are most vulnerable to extreme weather but least culpable for the pollution that drives it.

Local climate activists have lobbied for years in favor of a transition away from coal that protects workers, maintains affordability, and honors all life on the planet. If you are new to the area, here’s a bit of history:

Though rarely recognized in moments like this, it has been the voices of those dedicated to environmental health and the wellbeing of all that have advocated to eliminate energy waste on a scale that could have prevented this week’s rolling blackouts. (Bills like Texas State Senator Sarah Eckhardt’s SB243 right now would require state utilities to up their commitment to energy conservation. Support.) Most recently, an extended dialogue with CPS Energy’s leadership led to a moderate increase in the utility’s conservation goals and a promise to expand its weatherization and demand reduction programs to apartments, where renters today have little-to-no control over how energy “tight” their homes are, and therefore what their energy bill will be.

What’s the value of not building a power plant? A chart of savings due to CPS Energy’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Program within the Flexible Path Resource Plan.

Yet on the subject of energy conservation, there’s more cognitive dissonance in the Flexible Path Resource Plan. For months, CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams has promoted a message that energy conservation programs are an economic burden on local residents and that too much investment in them will balloon bills. Yet we find in the same report these truths: In 10 years, the STEP program has saved a coal plant’s worth of energy, driven down energy use, and reduced bills for program participants.

Those working for a smart and rapid but just transition off of coal in San Antonio won’t be surprised to hear this, but the report CPS just delivered appears to be carefully designed to spoil attitudes about clean energy and slow our path to necessary decarbonization.

The report’s takeaway message is that moving off coal by 2030 isn’t impossible, but it will be expensive, costing ratepayers between $6 to $12 per average bill, per month, in the near-term. For the small subset of San Antonio residents convinced and affluent enough to voluntarily pay extra to expand renewables (the target audience of programs like Windtricity, for instance), that $12 a month may feel like a small cost to pay to get off coal. But for a working-class city that’s been economically wrung-out by the COVID-19 pandemic, a developing CPS Energy road show flashing data-drenched rate-hike warnings won’t play well. It will sting especially, I suspect, after CPS comes to Council later this year, as expected, for a rate increase to maintain their existing course. Then we’re talking about a compound ratepayer punishment.

That CPS’s numbers should favor the dirtiest scenario is surprising given that utilities around the nation are running-not-walking away from climate-destabilizing coal. It’s true that the second Spruce unit is only a decade old with a load of debt hanging on it. But two fairly recent studies took that into account and still concluded that closing the plant is the winning economic play in most cases. (See 2019’s “An Updated Look at the Economics of the JK Spruce Power Plant” by Synapse Energy Economics, prepared for the Sierra Club.)

Coal’s advantage here is strange until one understands that not all retirement assumptions are created equal. Consider the retirement years set by the model.

The coal-burning base case retires Unit 1 in 2029, when the report’s authors expect a regulatory cost on carbon theoretically put in motion by this Biden Administration to come into effect. (Unit 2 is allowed to keep on burning in this case.) By comparison, both of the other scenarios retire not one but both coal units in 2023—six years earlier.

From the report:

Spruce Alternatives Key Assumptions. Page 34 of the Flexible Path Resource Plan.

While base/do-nothing scenarios will certainly cost residents more, sooner, and in ways this plan doesn’t begin to admit to, this hobbling of renewables at the starting gate is a dealer’s cheat, and a clumsy one at that.

There’s a lot else to be skeptical of here.

Frozen windmills and iced solar panels, though extraordinarily rare in Texas, expose a need for  long-term energy storage made shiveringly clear this week. But the report’s cost projections on 2- and 4-hour lithium-ion battery storage are … conservative. And longer-term storage solutions needed to move through polar weather aren’t considered at all. Which is interesting for two reasons.

First, it was only about two years ago that a senior member of the CPS leadership pulled me aside during a debate on energy transition and said, What if we have a two-week polar vortex? In climate changed world, in other words, he had to plan for that. Second, as part of an open proposal process for new clean energy projects, CPS attracting interest from companies around the world right now that are involved in compressed air, liquid air energy, and pumped hydro storage systems that are capable of storing energy for days, weeks, or even “seasonally.”

Slide from September 2020 update for the CPS Board of Trustees on international responses received in response to the utility’s campaign to bring more renewables and storage to San Antonio.

Globally, the dominant storage choice so far has been lithium-ion batteries. There is more than 1GW online in the UK right now with more than 16GW in the planning phase. Texas is playing a mini-me to the UK but trailing California one of the top states in the storage game. This year alone there are several lithium-based 50MW-100MW battery storage systems in development—several of which have moved beyond rare earths in favor of a less-toxic lithium iron phosphate solution. Within a just-transition framework, however, it’s more important to point out that the lithium mining that underpins much of the Green New Deal has serious implications for people and the lands and waters they and all other beings depend upon.

That said, as shown in the chart presented to the CPS Energy Board of Trustees above, more (seemingly) benign options exist. Liquid air batteries, like a UK model under development that promises five hours of storage or its US counterpart shooting for eight, create energy by first turning air to a liquid before converting that liquid back to drive combustion-free turbines.

Compressed air systems, such as one now being considered by Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, has the capability of holding “hundreds of hours” of storage, depending where you store that air. Underground salt domes are popular locations.

Given that these solutions are part of CPS’s internal deliberations, these sorts of solutions deserve to be in the resource plan’s calculus somewhere.

Further weighting the plan in coal’s favor is its insistence that the $1B depreciation value on Spruce be “accelerated” immediately after closure in the coal-eliminating scenarios, adding more artificial early pressure on ratepayer bills. As DeeDee Belmares of Public Citizen rightly pointed out in the San Antonio Express-News this weekend, it’s not the debt, but CPS’S OWN decision to “speed up payments” that results in another penalty against renewables.

In the long run, all of these scenarios pan about about equal, even by CPS’s math. But imagine: What do you get when you take an artificially early Spruce retirement of 2023 and insist on immediate debt service? Watch the bulge…

flexibile step report
Average monthly residential bills under three coal (semi- and full) retirement scenarios. Flexible Path Resource Plan.

Thankfully, although this report will be the first time many San Antonio residents consider the importance (or even existence) of our coal plant, it is not the final word on our energy transition. This is an opening salvo, one that CPS rightly marks by disclaimer as “preliminary and subject to change at any time.”

Reading the resource plan, it’s easy to forget that CPS Energy has already pledged under the city’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan to reduce its climate pollution by nearly half this decade. It’s easy to forget because there is no mention of their 2030 commitment in the document.

Pitifully, the resource plan justifies itself not by our utility’s inner drive or outward obligation to respond to critical climate commitments. It does so by pointing fearful finger at the likelihood of coming carbon regulation.

When we need to be amplifying together the challenge and opportunities and the sheer magnitude of the need for a truly just transition to less damaging forms of energyand the empowerment of those poisoned and marginalized by the current onesCPS is not only on another page, it’s in another room.

The starting point for this dialogue must be 2030. Not President Biden. Not carbon regulation. And only with that understanding do we then bring all parties to the table, armed with all the data they can muster, to whatever scenarios we need to run to bring those costs and solutions into balance. 

But as long as CPS’s now-trademarked “Flexible Path” fails to set a firm date for coal’s retirement, our utility will be understood increasingly by Merriam Webster’s second definition of “flexible”—“yielding to influence.” And we won’t even be asking whose influence; it will be clear in the lopsided and limited options the utility’s owners—you and I—are allowed to consider.

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