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CPS Energy’s massive power plants make it the ‘elephant in the room’ when it comes to climate planning. But climate committee members are resisting putting the utility at the center of discussion.
- CPS Energy is responsible for nearly half of all San Antonio’s climate pollution.
- JK Spruce coal plant alone is nearly a third of all San Antonio’s climate pollution.
- CPS has no plan to meet San Antonio’s goal of 41-55 percent greenhouse gas reduction by 2030.
- After meeting for a year, the volunteer leaders at SA Climate Ready tabled for two months a motion to develop a strategy around generation.
Two years ago, Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council approved a plan to drive our climate emissions down by between 41 and 55 percent by 2030 and zero them out (or better, go carbon negative) by 2050. For a year now members of the SA Climate Ready equity and technical committees have been meeting to generate policies to make these reductions happen. On Tuesday, October 5, an effort to center City-owned CPS Energy’s emmisions in this work was sidelined for two months as members of Climate Ready’s technical committee debated everything from what a subcommittee would be tasked with accomplishing, whether it would have any authority, or if (most bizarrely) CPS Energy’s emissions were even significant enough to discuss. The SA Climate Ready equity committee failed to achieve a quorum Monday night to consider the matter.
At the heart of the proposal brought by DeeDee Belmares, a climate organizer with Public Citizen, is the two-unit JK Spruce coal plant, responsible for roughly a third of all of San Antonio’s documented climate emissions. The two stated goals for the committee would be:
- Call for the closure of the Spruce Coal Plant no later than 2030 and transition the two units to
renewable energy sources-solar, wind and battery.
- Work with CPS Energy to further decarbonize our energy supply through the Flexible Path to meet the 2030 emissions reduction target.
Belmares has been motivated, in part, by the fact that CPS has not made any public commitment to closing its two coal units. Nor has it agreed to hit the targets of the City’s climate plan for 2030, which the international scientific community has declared the date to beat if we stand any chance of keeping global warming averages below 1.5 degrees, the threshold at which fears of cascading damage—potentially irreversible—enter the equation. Making the case for centering Spruce, Belmares cited these climate realities as well as a raft of public health issues making the Calavaras Lake facility a environmental justice concern.
Yet when the floor opened for a motion, it wasn’t a fellow committee member rushing into the dialogue. It was Assistant City Manager David McCary instructing Belmares to cite her sources. It was unclear whether he was upset about her referencing the IPCC’s most recent report or a study about leaking coal ash ponds.
“One of the thing I think is critical is when you are accenting a case study or you’re accenting a source please identify the source, identify the date,” he said. “That way as people are speaking folks can start googling to make certain that exists.”
With an awkward pause, the room turned to committee member Angela Rodriguez, CPS Energy’s director of climate strategy, for a response. She informed the group about the remarkable youth of the two Spruce units. (Spruce 2 may be the last coal plant built in the US, a fact that doesn’t fall to CPS’s favor.) She talked about how long coal plants normally run (longer than they should; see either of McCary’s requested citations above). And she shared news about the utility’s “flexible” path that includes anticipated large-ish solar purchases expected in the near-term (which we would like, obviously).
However, she neglected to share how much climate pollution these coal units produce.
If you’re a more of a visual person, here’s our graphic of 2019 emissions:
By her failure to address it, Rodriguez also confirmed that CPS Energy has no plan to meet our city’s 2030 goal for greenhouse reductions. No one on the committee pushed the point. She was big about 2040, however, saying CPS is planning on cutting their emissions by 80 percent by the date. “The target in the CAAP is 71 percent. We’re going to do a little better than that,” she said.
The target set by the CAAP for 2040 is actually a range (71-79 percent). The City’s climate plan calls 71 percent “the minimum acceptable reduction” (See page 37).
And this is where Ashley Harris, USAA’s director of government affairs, stepped in to offer a “broader perspective,” becoming the third speaker in a row to tilt the conversation against Belmares’s proposal. Harris wondered aloud why they group would even be concerned with CPS, which she suggested was a bit player in the city’s climate drama. “Buildings,” she said, made up 44 percent of city’s climate pollution; “transportation,” she said, was another 40 percent.
“I’m wondering if we’re not getting a little too in the weeds and we can pull back. I’d much rather focus on 84 percent as opposed to a portion of 8 percent [in industrial processes],” she said.
Hers was a clear misread of all of the City’s climate literature. Troublingly, she is not the first to scan a City climate report and fail to see the Spruce coal plant belching in the midst of the pie charts and bar graphs.
Outgoing CPS Energy Trustee Ed Kelly missed the utility’s massive footprint after being briefed on the climate plan by Rodriguez in 2019. “So what can we do? We can’t move the needle,” Kelly insisted at the time. “It looks like we’re already providing zero emissions.”
The plan’s frequent reference to buildings are actually intended to direct attention to the emissions generated by the energy sector that those buildings draw upon for their power (ie. CPS Energy’s power plants). The link is sometimes clear, sometimes not so much. A large pie chart used in the City’s updated 2019 Greenhouse Gas Inventory, one of the first major documents produced by SA Climate Ready after the empaneling of the climate committees in 2020, labels the massive slice of pollution as “Building Energy Usage.”
Spruce’s emissions change per year, depending on energy need and how often the plant is run.
In 2019, the plant released 6.8 million metric tons (mmt) of climate pollution. Spruce emissions slowed during COVID, new numbers from the US EPA show. In 2020, Spruce released about 5.8 mmt of climate pollution. In 2018, Spruce released 7.2 mmt (in addition to since-retired “Dirty” Deely coal plant’s 5.4 mmt).
For his part, Melnick understands how folks may trip over greenhouse accounting practices and the relationship between buildings and the power sources they draw upon. It all demands clear communications from his department and others.
“I think there’s got to be a constant education and reminder of what’s behind this,” he said. “CPS is the elephant in the room because they supply the energy that’s running everything, whether it’s natural gas or electricity, whether it’s industrial or whether that’s [ev] transport.”
An off-camera committee member who didn’t identify himself voted in favor of tabling the matter and having a presentation from CPS in December.
“I for one would like to get debriefed on what CPS’s plan actually is, what they are actually doing,” the member said. “There’s a lot of things they’re probably doing behind the scenes. … Once we see what they are doing we can decide what we recommend or endorse or whatever term you want to use.”
Belmares expects a positive vote when it comes back to the group.
“My hope for a December yes vote is that members would see a subcommittee on Spruce/decarbonization as an opportunity to do the necessary work to meet the interim targets of the plan,” she said.
Melnick said his staff would continue to work to make sure members understand who is responsible for the more than 17 million metric tons that need to be eliminated.
“My hope is that was just a one-off, you know? The greenhouse gas inventory is complicated. Maybe there were others who were unsure but I hope that clarified it,” he told Deceleration of the correction he offered during the meeting. “I think what it gets to is when we message this stuff, we’ve got to be clearer. Yes, we’re using a methodology, that’s one thing. But if it’s a piece that’s not translating, that’s something we need to clarify.”
Both SA Climate Ready’s equity and technical committees will hear from CPS and Belmares in December before taking action on the proposal for a decarbonization subcommittee. You can watch past meetings at the SA Climate Ready website.