Reporting San Antonio

CPS Energy Couldn’t Stop the Freezing Blackout…Because People

CPS Energy’s first warning of the impending apocalypse reads (essentially) ‘bring it on.’ Detail of tweet.

CPS Energy’s CEO blamed failed conservation by local residents as a key contributor to the region’s multi-day blackout. Yet the conservation programs are voluntary, underfunded … and the utility didn’t send a single Spanish-language emergency tweet until Texas was 12 hours from near-total grid collapse. Let’s talk.

Greg Harman

You know things are serious when CPS Energy tweets in Spanish.

In a city where up to half of all residents speak some Spanish in the house and 50,000-150,000 households are considered “Spanish Statistically Isolated,” it seems unfathomable that the electric and gas provider’s Twitter feed was English-only until blackouts began to strand thousands of residents in a dark frozen nightmare.

Although dangerous weather warnings had been coming in since at least February 5, 2021, CPS Energy’s first tweet related to the storm was a Texas brag, and one that has not aged well. “BRRRRing on the cold front,” it reads. “Our crews are prepared to respond to any potential outage reports.”

A few days later, roads were iced over. Clusters of outages were popping up across the city. And rolling blackouts were on the way that would soon harden into frozen days without power for nearly 400,000. It was a storm for the generations, and San Antonio’s utility was totally unprepared. When CPS officials talk about their storm-related outreach, they are describing, in part, five days of English-language-only social media posts urging residents to such radical actions as closing curtains and dialing back thermostat to a moderate 68 degrees.

Then, just 12 hours before the state’s electric grid came within five minutes of total collapse, CPS issued their first Spanish-language tweet: a call for similar moderate conservation—with infographic language still in English and a link for consejos, or “tips,” directing to an English-language ERCOT post. /Gracias./

Facebook posts also hewed closely to this same monolingual recipe.

Last week, the Texas Legislature began holding hearings to determine how things went so wrong so fast. It is a puzzlement, as the NOAA Climate Prediction Center was sending out dire forecasts as early as February 5, 2021, giving the state’s utilities more than a week to put it into preparation overdrive.

Perhaps a “climate” prediction center itself is too polarizing in Texas? During the Lege hearing, state State Sen. Kelly Hancock (R-DFW) interrupted state Sen. John Whitmire (D-Houston) to warn him off of talking about “climate change,” which Hancock likened to “chasing rabbits.”

NOAA Climate Prediction Center
NOAA Climate Prediction Center. Issued February 5, 2021.

To be clear, such staunch resistance to climate action these past decades is responsible for death and displacement by fast- and slow-moving climate-related disasters such as Winter Storm Uri and is now teeing up waves of unstoppable extreme weather.

On February 17, in the midst of the blackouts, as people were literally freezing to death, former Guv Rick Perry (in an echo of current Guv Lite Dan Patrick speaking of COVID just a few months ago) suggested that these lives were being given as freely as Alamo defenders in a noble stand against federal regulation. “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” he told House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy. Too bad we can’t ask those who died this month if Perry’s is an accurate reflection of their position. We strongly doubt it.

Here in San Antonio, investigations are also just getting underway.

During its special meeting of February 17, 2021, the San Antonio City Council discussed communications failures at CPS and the San Antonio Water System, but not to the extent they should have.

This language fail did not go unnoticed.

As written in a statement by Maria Turvin, founder and operations director of Yanawana Herbolarios, one of many grassroots orgs deeply engaged in mutual aid recovery work:

“Language plays a significant role in the creating of true inclusivity for all community members. You cannot grant equal access to information and opportunities in a system that is mono-lingual and/or places an inferior importance on any language. San Antonio’s traditions are steeply enriched in the culture of native Spanish speaking citizens identifying as Indigenous, Mexica, and Mexican, and has a citizen composition of over 60% Hispanic. It is deplorable that any entity (in SATX) offering what would be considered vital services would delay access to information to its Spanish speaking clients/customers. It is negligent, harmful, and in a disaster situation that wrought significant trauma amongst many of our community members, incredibly irresponsible.”

Exclusion of San Antonio’s Spanish-speaking population not only means reduced access to disaster messaging; it also means exclusion from critical opportunities for public input into policymaking, including most recently the recruitment of volunteers to help reform the utility’s rate structure or to provide feedback on a possible retirement of CPS’s last coal plant.

The same is likely true for the energy conservation programs the utility runs.

CPS Energy February 19 tweet documenting a bucket-truck rollover. Image: CPS Energy

As investigations get under way, CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams seems most keenly focused on generation questions. She has insisted, for instance, that we would have been able to provide for our local community if the state’s grid managers at the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) hadn’t called on the utility to shed 1,400 megawatts to help meet a grid-sized 20,000 megawatt generation gap. But not only were all of our generation options freezing up, icing over, or just not performing as expected in the cold, she depicts conservation as another spoiled opportunity that failed to reduce demand for power. And that failure, she suggested, was due to the reluctance of customers to dial back.

If her assertion about conservation’s role in the disaster is correct (we’re holding out to see the data), it’s a fumbled opportunity years in the making, rooted in both the utility’s limits on investment in weatherization-related programs and (if this past two weeks are any indication) a similarly limited Spanish-language outreach.

In the midst of the life-threatening blackout, residents anxiously tracked whose power stayed on and whose was cut, often looking for explanations in racial and class inequalities or political connections. CPS on the other hand has described the local electric grid as a patchwork without much forethought, cobbled together to keep up with growth. One-third of residents, Gold-Williams said recently, essentially lucked out by being located on so-called critical circuits tied to prioritized infrastructure like hospitals or police and fire stations.

The reality is that, even if the blackouts had been equal and rolling as intended, robbing power from all residents equally, existing structural inequities mean the lived impact of disasters can never be equally distributed. (For a quick example, see: Ralph Garcia & the Polar Vortex). Poverty matters. Disability matters. Location matters. Race and language matter. Access to warming centers or grocery stores or alternative sources of potable water matter. And, as millions across the state felt so recently, insulation matters.

That is to say: homes themselves are not constructed equally. And CPS can do more.

“Energy efficiency is a public safety issue that no one is talking about,” Daniel Tait, a researcher at the Energy and Policy Institute, told the Texas Observer recently. “An energy efficient home saves people money all the time, and it would also reduce the peak demand we saw.”

Conservation questions came up several times during the San Antonio City Council’s special meeting of February 17 with Gold-Williams and SAWS CEO Robert Puente. With hundreds of thousands still out of power across the city, Gold-Williams delivered an unflattering account of what voluntary energy reduction strategies had produced. Before rolling blackouts, she said, “the better strategy always is to try to do as much conservation as possible.”

The problem was, she said, it didn’t work.

After riffing on some companies, “large companies,” who volunteered to reduce their production lines, change their hours, and reduce staffing, Gold-Williams admitted the utility itself had dropped the ball, lighting up its own empty offices and parking garage while much of the rest of the San Antonio descended into darkness, voluntarily or otherwise.

“We lost track of what we were doing and we weren’t conserving at our building,” Gold-Williams said. “We have since fixed that.”

Councilmember Shirley Gonzalez pressed harder than any other councilmember on the conservation point. Why, if school districts had already cancelled school for Monday on the previous Thursday, could we not have done a better job at reducing energy use to avoid shutoffs, she asked.

CPS Energy’s Chief Customer Engagement Officer Rudy Garza was enthusiastic about CPS’s conservation performance. CPS had been communicating conservation values to customers daily, he said, and many of the city’s “largest customers” voluntarily shifted to backup power, if they had it available.

“I guess,” Gonzales replied warily. “But, it didn’t work. Otherwise, we wouldn’t be in this situation.” Then she followed with the critical question: “Would it have been enough to make a difference?”

“It would have been real tough to conserve our way out of 35,000 megawatts,” Garza replied.

It is unclear whose 35,000 megawatts he was referring to. ERCOT as a whole had to shed a total of 20,000 megawatts of power. San Antonio’s obligation was to eliminate only 7 percent of that.

It’s worth hearing the full exchange here:

CEO Gold-Williams’s judgement was less charitable than Garza’s. Our city’s residents, she said, simply failed to deliver.

“Our STEP program for energy efficiency and conservation, normally we get about 200 megawatts … maybe 220 of that program,” she said. “And we hardly got any megawatts from energy efficiency and conservation through our demand response program.”

“If we could have dialed back that system it would have helped but it really didn’t happen because it was so cold that people were just trying to maintain their operations.”

People were just trying to maintain their own operations. Not the whole community’s operations, which STEP is supposedly about. (See Update at bottom.)

Here are Gold-Williams’ full quotes on conservation efforts during the storm pulled from the meeting:

And here she is explaining how the local energy grid is divided between “critical” and “noncritical” circuits and what that meant for residents during Winter Storm Uri.

STEP is the utility’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Program. Since instituted in 2010, STEP has saved the city—through a variety of efforts including community solar programs, energy efficiency measures, free home weatherization, and demand response programs—roughly 800 megawatts of power, a coal plant’s worth of energy, essentially, without burning a thing. By not burning a thing.

Those programs have meant savings across the city.

Here are two charts from CPS’s Flexible Path Resource Plan.

In 2020, STEP saved 1.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, enough energy to power 123,000 Greater San Antonio area households for one year.
Average energy use per household has declined by almost 2,000 kilowatt hours per year.

Recently, CPS’s leadership put out a Request for Proposals, asking businesses to pitch them conservation programs that will help them do another round of STEP with roughly the same goals.

For the last couple months, I was part of a small group meeting with Gold-Williams and several senior staff to urge them to improve their programs for energy efficiency, conservation, and weatherization of local homes.

A lot of press attention has been directed at a recent petition effort to force Spruce to close by 2030 and force a change of governance at CPS the initiative came in shy of the needed 20,000 signatures to put it to voters this May. However, there has been an equal community interest in STEP reform. Almost no reporting has shined a light on an open letter carried by Climate Action SA in October 2020 with nearly two dozen endorsing community organizations. It included a raft of energy reform proposals intended to help San Antonio residents bounce back from the weight of the crushing COVID-19 pandemic. With the passing of Winter Storm Uni, its recommendations are even more critical.

The proposals included:

  • End the Policy of Utility Disconnections for Most Vulnerable Families
  • Elevate FlexSTEP as an Essential Element of a Just COVID-19 Recovery
  • No Rate Increases Until Our Utility Rate Structure is Fair
  • Develop Community-Driven Resource Planning
  • Shut Down the Spruce Coal Plant by 2030

At its heart is a call for the Mayor, Council, and CPS Energy to reimagine STEP as a tool to more heavily insulate and improve the homes of working families to keep people housed and bills down while exploring the massive jobs creation potential of the clean energy sector. This letter received no response from the Mayor, Council, or the CPS Board of Trustees. But nearly a year later small group meetings with CPS got underway.

The talks on the conservation program, now known as FlexSTEP, concluded earlier this month—a week before Winter Storm Uri struck, actually—with several fundamental disagreements remaining. Incremental changes were made, including an agreement to develop weatherization programs for apartment residents, whose power bills are largely left to the mercy of a landlord’s decision to weatherize or not, for example.

But rather than taking up a message of energy-use reductions built upon the investment in local housing stock and rooftop solar in low-income communities, Gold-Williams is talking about building a new gas plant and slowing the pace of renewables adoption.

Meanwhile, Cris Eugster, dubbed by a San Antonio Express-News copywriter as the “architect of [CPS’s] clean energy push,” confirmed this week that he is leaving the utility.

Still there has been no talk about the cost- and lives-saving potential of programs found in STEP or whether demand reduction programs as Gold-Williams describes are working as they should. These demand-response programs involve partnerships with industrial, commercial, and residential customers that allow the utility to remotely dial back some of those customers power when the utility approaches its generation capacity. Beyond the anecdotes offered in public meetings, a CPS report on how CPS’s business and industrial partners performed would be helpful. On the residential side, demand response includes things like Nest thermostats controlled by the customer—or the utility—remotely.

As an early adopter of this technology, one local resident told Deceleration how much they loved the program they signed up for until it became obsolete.

“We were happy with this program overall until CPS Energy stopped supporting the provided hardware and discontinued the program altogether in 2019,” said Liz Montgomery. “The program was functioning perfectly well and free.”

To continue required an investment in a new thermostat and Nest monitoring, she wrote, and her family stopped participating.

Another local resident under the newer Nest program saw their thermostat tilt back a few degrees during the onset of the storm and received the following message:

“This unprecedented weather has created a greater demand for energy than the amount of energy being generated, resulting in the need for controlled outages to help prevent an uncontrolled blackout. As part of our efforts to reduce energy consumption, CPS Energy will be scheduling Critical Rush Hour Rewards events over the coming days. During these events, we will lower your Google Nest Thermostat by a few degrees. Each of these Rush Hour Rewards events will last up to 4 hours and will be limited to once per day.”

It concluded:

“As always, you have the opportunity to opt out of the events simply by adjusting your thermostat at the device or on your app.”

By way of reminder: The Texas state grid was four minutes and thirty-seven seconds away from a total blackout that could have lasted for “weeks—if not more.” It was not an appropriate time to opt out.

ERCOT Timeline of energy demand for Monday, February 15.

For many of the nearly 400,000 San Antonio residents left stranded in the freezing dark for days on end, for the four million around the state, for the unknown number of dead, there’s not a lot of patience for Perry’s posturing about the glory of Texas independence. There can be no tolerance for monolingual disaster messaging that put lives at risk and reduce our ability to conserve. There is renewed interest in tying into the national grid for greater security. Yet programs like STEP, which provide families so many direct benefits and ensure that, even when the power is cut, suffering is reduced, have gone mostly ignored.

It’s worth nothing that CPS’s supposedly failed conservation programs, for those who know about them, Gold-Williams informed City Council, are “all carrot.” The question that neither Councilmember Gonzales nor any of her Council colleagues have yet asked: Where’s a good stick when we need one?


UPDATE: At the March 1, 2021, CPS Energy Board of Trustees meeting, Garza said demand response programs delivered about 90MW per day in savings. According to his presentation, residential users saved a total of 50MW per day between February 14 to February 19 and commercial/industrial users saved 40MW per day between February 12 and February 19. See Board Packet pages 160 and 162.

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