Analysis San Antonio Bioregion

Why We Can’t Stop Thinking About Paula Gold-Williams (And Neither Should You)

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paula gold-williams, cps energy cover image

Outgoing CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams deftly managed climate action expectations through delay and misdirection. But with critical global deadlines looming, her replacement must make an equitable transition to clean energy and rate reform their top priority.

Greg Harman

CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams has had enough. In a press release short on details, and without an obvious immediate spark, the CPA who rose through the ranks to the City-owned utility’s top seat announced she will be stepping down sometime in “early 2022.” The erosion of the public’s support for the utility expressed in one recent poll suggests the residents of San Antonio have had enough of her as well. In a press release, Gold-Williams—the San Antonio Business-Journal‘s Woman of the Year as recently as 2020, not to mention an appointee to an advisory board of the US Department of Energy earlier this month, thanked the utility’s staff. Board Chair Willis Mackey expressed confidence that Gold-Williams “will continue to provide excellent guidance to her employees and the company as we go through this transition period.”

Under her watch, climate progress has been incremental and uneven, at best, even as the need for action has tightened and global scientific certainty set in. She oversaw the retirement of our dirtiest coal plant, a plan set in motion by her predecessor, but won’t be here to see the result of her only truly significant solar deal. And she may have contributed to the unraveling of critical energy-conservation programs that, post Winter Storm Uri, should instead be inspiring city-scale weatherization mobilization. She has occupied a highly influential seat at the clean-energy sector table but never used her position to activate it at the scale the moment requires.

Her departure creates an opening to at last engage the intersecting values of a just energy transition and more fully transform CPS into the utility necessary to provide for the security and empowerment of our communities here in San Antonio and globally.

In the 10 days since her announced retirement, I’ve looked to the lesser-understood movements of her tenure, and the behaviors of our elected leadership, for the lessons they may provide. All of this brings into focus how misdirection, distraction, and sustained resistance on the part of leadership, matched by our inability to maintain a focus on effective climate response, puts our collective success at risk.

Stumbling on Climate

Gold-Williams’s calendar was always full and her accolades many. She was a staple of the burgeoning “clean tech” and so-called smart cities circuit. For those not caught up in the struggle of pressing for more aggressive climate action these last decades, she was defined by frequent news of various recognitions: S&P Global Platts’s 2019 Chief Trailblazer of the Year. San Antonio Business-Journal‘s returning Woman of the Year in 2020. For a brief moment—before conflict-of-interest charges caught on—she was the chair of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce.

For a reliable collection of climate-minded residents tracking and responding to the utilty’s movements, not much could scrub off the stain of dangerously stalled climate action, strong resistance to even discussing early retirement for the utility’s last remaining coal-fired power plant, or her slow undermining of her own team’s programs, such as the suite of energy conservation strategies known as STEP (Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan). But the progress that has been made, largely set in motion by her predecessor, former CEO Doyle Beneby, has allowed even the City’s climate committee tasked with guiding our city-wide reduction in climate emissions to question recent calls to form an internal subcommittee to focus on closing coal-burning JK Spruce.

Prefacing his questions about the purpose of the committee with scene-setting praise, Ryan Weber of the World Resources Institute opened: “To be clear here, CPS on kind of the national stage is well respected as one of the more aggressive transitioning utilities.” Though he allowed: “That doesn’t mean that here in San Antonio we can’t advocate for more.”

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But what years of climate agitation around CPS Energy have failed to activate—say, for instance, a City Council committed to actively tracking and weighing in on utility operations—February’s climate shock accomplished. A sweep of reform efforts followed the freeze that left hundreds of thousands without power for days. However, an emergency preparedness committee convened by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and chaired by former Councilmember and oil exec Reed Williams kept a tight focus on CPS generation operations rather than stray into questions about the sources of that generation or how to better prepare residents for the certainty of accelerating extreme weather.

The newly formed Municipal Utilities Committee took up the disaster team’s CPS recommendations as its mission: Calls for better communication, grid stability, a re-organization of critical circuits, and better plant operations have still neglected the customer and climate sides of the equation. In the discussion of power plant weatherization, pre-storm community calls for mass weatherization of under-resourced homes have yet to appear. And a new CPS Rate Advisory Committee (RAC), formed prior to the storm out of climate community negotiations with the Mayor, has also largely kept its attention on source-agnostic energy generation and reliability issues. Stranger yet, months into the process, the RAC seems to have no specific objective or even agreed-upon values outside of (again) energy reliability and a general aspiration for “fair rates.” (The RAC did pick up the subject of utility burden this week, which offers a far less flattering portrait of energy realities in San Antonio residents than Gold-Williams’s oft-repeated utility rate comparisons have allowed.)

Unsurprisingly, years of positive messaging by CPS are at odds with narratives of the utility that have emerged since the storm.

“The purpose of propaganda is always to make the public believe something that directly contradicts their lived experience,” observed Julián Villarreal of the Bexar County Green Party, who has been active in climate action work locally.

“We are told to believe that CPS keeps our bills affordable, our energy reliable, and that it does so in financially and environmentally sustainable ways. But the truth is quite different. The wave of recent resignations also shows us that the rot truly runs deep throughout CPS and the problems began at the top,” he said. (Read his full statement supplied to Deceleration here.)

February’s storm and blackouts served as an invitation to the media to ask harder questions.And the headlines that have followed likely contributed to polling results released earlier this month, which report 52 percent of participating Bexar County residents either “somewhat” or “strongly disapprove” of the job CPS Energy has been doing.

Bexar Facts’s respondents weren’t asked any clarifying questions as to why they disapprove or approve of CPS Energy. But disclosed demographic info shows self-described Republicans tilted more critical of CPS, at 33 percent strongly disapproving, compared with self-described Democrats at 25 percent strongly disapproving. (Independents sat reliably in the middle at 29 percent.) There was no check box on CEO Paula Gold-Williams. Nothing about the coal plant or handling of Winter Storm Uri. But it’s sure to have been a painful slide for a Board used to hearing a very different opinion about itself. As KSAT reported when the survey was released, the Facts’s survey in late 2020 showed CPS enjoying a 69 percent approval rating.

In fact, Google search histories for San Antonio suggest the level of overall interest in the utility has been marginal. That is, until the power went off.


Local Googling of CPS Energy coincided with ‘Power Outage’ in February

Click above to explore search trends in 2021.


The drumbeat of dysfunction as captured in recent headlines has been chronicled in many venues, including at the San Antonio Report.

While some saw noble motives animating Gold-Williams’s legal strike at ERCOT and the price-gouging gas companies—including, satisfyingly, Energy Transfer Partners and Kelcy Warren, the force behind Standing Rock’s Dakota Access pipeline and more recently the proud owner of a Robert E. Lee original. Others saw self-interest seeking to distract from a woeful failure to prepare for climate shocks like Uri. As the disaster committee documented, one of the key reasons behind the severity of our blackouts was the failure of units at both the utility’s coal and nuclear plants.

Everything is Flexible

From a climate justice perspective, all of these issues are of concern. But it’s also a serious problem that a focus on the drama of CPS’s seeming unraveling during Uri and since by elected leaders, appointed committee members, and local media has virtually subsumed the previous organizing messages and public discourse around CPS’s responsibility in a state global climate disaster by transitioning to cleaner fuel sources and driving down local energy use.

As has been pointed out throughout her tenure, delay of climate action has been the most dangerous game Gold-Williams has been playing. Judged as the utility frequently is by current industry standards, CPS has some bragging rights on clean-energy adoption to date. Environment Texas hosts the utility an annual party of sorts with its “Shining Cities” rankings tracking solar installations within the city limits. When measured by total total megawatts per customer or annual growth of solar, however, CPS doesn’t crack the Smart Electric Power Alliance Top 10’s like other hometown public utilities such as Georgetown, Austin, or Denton.

On energy efficiency, its programs are better than average, in spite of Gold-Williams’s steady undermining of them (more below). However, understood within the scope of climate crisis, CPS’s sheen degrades further.

The pledge that led the closure of JT “Dirty” Deely coal plant in 2018 came from the previous CEO, as did a surge into our solar contracts and, arguably, most of our local solar jobs. The Sierra Club, where I worked for more than four years before returning to journalism full time last month, gave CPS Energy a failing grade on climate, in part, due to the lack of a retirement plan for its coal plant.

CPS Energy Flexible Path slide
Coal, nuclear, gas, and an unknown “flex gen” power source filled large slices of projected generation pie when Paula Gold-Williams released her vision of CPS Energy’s generation future in 2018.

Gold-Williams’s device to avoid any hard climate commitments has been her “Flex Path,” a general vision of incrementally lower-carbon energy generation hinging on unknown technologies, a place where all things are possible, but nothing is actually required. Charts like the one below have been shared regularly since Gold-Williams released her first “Flex” presentation to the Board of Trustees in May of 2018 even as an effort involving about 90 volunteers was underway to develop carbon-reduction goals and strategies as part of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, increasingly known as SA Climate Ready (disclaimer: I was a Steering Committee member). Gold-Williams suggested the Flex “path not a plan,” as she would often correct, would increase the utility’s renewables holdings with as-yet unidentified technologies with sustained reliance on coal and gas.

However, the release of highly anticipated new rounds of renewable energy purchases, pitched to the global market with a Request for Proposals as the FlexPower Bundle in July of 2020, has been delayed for months since the deadline for proposals passed in February. The message from one July presentation slide read: “We may need flexibility on our timeline based on the volume of responses we received & to perform due diligence as we evaluate the new technologies.” After coming out of executive session this last week, Board members opted to skip a planned update on the FlexPower Bundle, intended to bring an additional 900MW of solar, 500MW of “firming capacity,” and 50WM of battery power.

CPS’s Board has delayed an expected 10-year re-commitment to CPS’s STEP energy conservation programs (rechristened “FlexSTEP”) for a second year and could potentially strike key elements from the CPS to-do list, with an assist from Gold-Williams. This lack of movement follows a fresh IPCC report this year that spotlights with unprecedented certainty the need for rapid, and massive, carbon reductions by 2030—a deadline CPS is explicitly resisting. All of this even as the most significant climate mechanisms are being excised from advancing federal policy, a move sure to complicate progress at a fresh UN climate summit convening now.

Because so many are responding to the result of the vulnerabilities and sufferings exposed by recent extreme weather events, what energy manifested in previous years in speaking out for a stable, habitable climate has been allowed to grow cold. No local outlets have weighed in on Gold-Williams’s staunch refusal to commit to meeting our City’s climate plan’s call for 41-55 percent carbon reductions by 2030. Television news reports on the millions being spent fighting unfair gas charges passed along to CPS, but not the utility’s spending to suppress local initiative petitions to force utility reform.

Now Gold-Williams’s departure presents our city a shot at bringing a broad suite of needed reforms back into balance. It remains to be seen, however, whether Mayor Nirenberg (who has consistently appealed to climate justice advocates to trust the process of gradually improving appointments) or City Council members (who only recently stepped to the question of our climate responsibilities while upvoting UTSA professor Francine Romero as a new CPS Energy board member) will insist upon any commitments or reforms at CPS prior to approving a rate-hike request expected in January.

The Romero vote suggests … maybe. While Council ultimately broke for Romero, there were several skeptics, who abstained, perhaps recalling Romero’s critical vote as a Zoning Commission member that helped prepare the way for the rezoning and forced displacement of Mission Trails Mobile Home Community. However, none of these abstainers pressed to disregard the CPS Board’s Romero recommendation and instead install a candidate embraced by the climate action community.

For Romero’s part, she pledged to personally seek to meet the City’s climate goals at CPS while also, when cross-questioned, staying open to potentially challenging elements of the climate plan down the road.

Regrettably, the Express-News Editorial Board exists in a state of climate retrenchment. If the best local climate reporting in recent years has been the purview of the San Antonio Report, some of the strongest editorials have been a product of the daily.

But since skillfully and provocatively challenging CPS Energy, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, and the Office of Sustainability in 2019 to tackle the problem of coal, the E-N Editorial Board has fallen disappointingly silent. 2019 saw at least 11 editorials penned about the coal by the Ed Board—largely on the need to move away from it. Specifically about Spruce they they wrote in January of 2019 that “there is one obvious thorn in San Antonio’s side when it comes to climate action. What are the city and CPS Energy going to do with their coal-fired J.K. Spruce Power Plant? Where does that fit in with our burgeoning climate plan?”

It’s not been a challenge they’ve taken up since. Spruce was named only once in 2020. Their first and only editorial about the JK Spruce coal plant this year came in the weeks prior to the February freeze. It was a call for the release of a so-called Resource Plan outlining several potential future scenarios for the plant’s retirement. The plan was released, but its full meaning went unexplored.

“While we may not have had a recent editorial on the Spruce II unit—our position has not changed,” Editorial Page Editor Josh Brodesky wrote Deceleration. “We are concerned about carbon emissions and a warming world, and we want to see an open and full discussion with the city and CPS about a timeline for closing Spruce, as well as impacts on rates and the climate/environment.”

Union Dues

Gold-Williams first surfaced in my awareness shortly after I moved to San Antonio in 2007.

After failing to secure a requested rake hike from the City Council, then CPS CEO Milton Lee was warring with the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers and deep in a punishing campaign for cost savings through other means, specifically by eliminating 500 employees from the utility ranks in five years. As Vice President and Chief Administrative Officer, Gold-Williams describes her role during this time on her LinkedIn page as being “primarily responsible for the extensive implementation of an enterprise-wide ‘requisite’ re-organization, including a major re-structuring of the compensation system.” In this period of labor tension, gender- and race-based discrimination lawsuits were rife.

Profiling their Woman of the Year pick last year, the San Antonio Business-Journal described how Gold-Williams was recruited by Lee for “an initiative to shake up the organization.”

Lee, she told the Business-Journal, “was trying to blend the tried and true with the new,” she said. “That’s how I got in. I was one of ‘them’—one of those people who didn’t grow up in the organization.”

Leaked photos of a manager’s cubicle, 2007. Image: Brains & Eggs.

Exposing another side of the internal struggle at the time, one union member leaked a photo of what they described as a Ku Klux Klan noose hanging in a manager’s cubicle. The hangman’s noose with 12 “turns” had, apparently, been on display for a decade. A photo released to the media captured it on display beside a Bible. Gold-Williams was responding to media inquiries. As a Black woman, as a person of conscience, this could not have been easy to defend.

Yet:

“Within the context of when he got it, [the noose] was very benign,” Gold-Williams insisted. “Everybody understood it. But, again, when you’re in an environment where everything is changing, people may wonder why it’s up there.”

A couple years later, she became the utility’s Chief Financial Officer during a troubled effort—one set in motion by Lee—to expand the South Texas Project nuclear complex in Matagorda County by two additional units. In an early hit to former Mayor Julián Castro’s then-budding political career, the utility and City lost hundreds of millions of dollars of ratepayer money seeking to build what would have been the first new nuclear plants constructed in the United States in several decades.

Former San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro and the collapse of a nuclear ambition.

It was this same period of nuclear entanglement—with many of the same players in the lead—that an awareness of and interest in less combustible, lower-carbon energy sources developed. Seeking inspiration, the utility’s Board members traveled with clean energy advocate Jeremy Rifkin to see how the renewables sector was shaping up in Europe.

“I said to [then CPS Energy Board Trustee] Aurora [Geis], I’d like to show you the future. We’d like to take you to Spain and show you the 21st Century,” Rifkin said in 2009. There the group toured regions already deriving more than half of their power from renewable power. “This the first utility in the United States of America that has brought in the European vision to this country.”

Jeremy Rifkin on San Antonio and the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

It’s worth noting that unlike the collapse of the proposed expansion of CPS’s nuclear power holdings which forced several company execs and board members to retire (but didn’t kill anyone that we know of), none of the utility’s staff or Board of Trustees have stepped down in response to the failure of CPS’s power plants that claimed 14 lives in Bexar County. Those that have left did so in response not to that event, but rather to what they have described as an abusive work culture.

Clean Energy and ‘Clean’ Coal

Both the nuclear fiasco and the enthusiasm around renewable power clearly were instructive for a rising Gold-Williams, named interim CEO in 2015 after Milton Lee’s replacement, Doyle Beneby, resigned (sidenote: and then courted, but ultimately rejected, a near-turnstyle return to CPS leadership). Gold-Williams was named CEO in 2016.

The now-departed former Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster has often been described as the “architect” of CPS’s clean-energy efforts. But as the head of a large diversified utility, CEO Gold-Williams also came to cut a large swathe in that universe. A review of her speaking engagements show that, in spite of how much coal and gas and nuclear the utility operates (ie. the majority of their portfolio), the professional track she runs hasn’t included coal for years. She seems to rarely stray into oil and gas shows. In fact, an exhaustive list of Gold-Williams speaking engagements through 2019 and 2020 provided to Deceleration by open records request show the vast majority of her engagements—more than 30—inhabit the broad category of low-carbon energy technologies. She has engaged regularly with groups like the Rocky Mountain Institute, Stanford Global Energy Forum, or local Zpryme, the records show. Following this renewables category are roughly a dozen events dedicated to the “smart cities” concept, including grid management and digitization, including organizations like the Texas Renewable Energy Industrial Association.

During this same period, she participated in roughly the same number of more traditional utility industry gatherings, like one sponsored by the Electric Power Research Institute. A few others she attended were dedicated to transportation electrification, a couple to energy efficiency, a couple to solar, and one to wind. Only three engagements identified in those two years were dedicated explicitly to oil or gas. These included “Gastech Global,” which included a spotlight on LNG, the UT Gas and Power Institute, and a forum sponsored by the South Texas Energy Roundup Regional Suppliers Panel, hosted by the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, South Texas Energy and Economic Roundtable (STEER), and Texas Oil & Gas Association (TXOGA).

There were no speaking engagements to talk up or promote the coal industry.

Not that there hasn’t been interest from coal boosters locally or from the state of Wyoming, where CPS Energy buys its coal. Or from ambitious, independent self-promoting lobbyists.


Pencil Yourself In? Paula’s Itinerary


In January of this year, a kind of dam broke at CPS. After more than a decade of community lobbying to shift the CPS project more clearly into alignment with locally and globally responsible power choices, former COO Eugster presented to the utility’s board for the first time a vision for moving “beyond coal” by 2030. Up until that point, the “Flex” presentations had clearly showed coal being burned to any projection’s end date. But Gold-Williams reined in Eugster’s language, cautioning the Board of Trustees that early Spruce retirement was not decided.

“The flexible path resource plan is not that we’ve decided that coal comes out,” she reminded the Board on January 25, 2021. “It is an option of consideration. 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.”

Here Gold-Williams and CPS were grudgingly responding to years of community complaints about the lack of transparency at the utility and the unwillingness of staff to share any economic assumptions about Spruce. But even this “view of options” captured in the CPS Energy Resource Plan might have been delayed further, as coal interests were also padding around behind the scenes.

In the summer of 2019, the director of the innocuous-sounding Energy Policy Network, Randy Eminger, was still selling his services as a Texas-based coal defender fighting on behalf of Wyoming miners. Nearly half of all coal mined in the United States comes from Wyoming’s Powder River Basin (PRB)—including the millions of tons that make the long trip in uncovered rail cars across the country to be burned each year on the south side of San Antonio. Eminger wanted the influential Campbell County Economic Development Corporation to know that he was on the job keeping San Antonio chained to the PRB—all in spite of the fact, he made sure to include, that the state of Wyoming had failed to fund his work that year.

“Although this was a big hit to the EPN budget,” he wrote the head of the Campbell County body on July 23, 2019, “we continue to fight for the PRB (Powder River Basin) in as many locations as we have funding for.”

That, at least by Eminger’s calculations at the time, included San Antonio.

“Forming coalition to oppose the close of the JK Spruce plants in San Antonio, Texas,” is included in his “short report of recent activities.”


Randy Eminger: Just in it for the Coal


He does not mention in this email that only six months earlier, San Antonio had celebrated the closure of the JT “Dirty” Deely coal plant, the region’s largest polluter at the time, after 40 years of heavy polluting at Calaveras Lake (See: “Energy Dusk to Energy Dawn: JT Deely (1977-2018)“)

A dirty energy advocate with roots in Texas’s “clean” coal movement, Eminger told Rusty Bell, the head of the development corp and a Campbell County Commissioner, that he was actively working with the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce and the notorious Texas Public Policy Foundation (among “other interested parties”) in building a coalition to keep San Antonio hooked on Wyoming coal.

Especially in light of CPS”s reticinece around closing Spruce, it would be easy to see in these moves evidence of a substantial coal lobby directing CPS decisions. But evidence tilts against this assessment. Eminger has been a virtual ghost in the San Antonio energy scene. While the heads of the chambers of commerce present regularly at CPS Energy meetings and town halls, and hometown carbon-heavy refiners and pipeliners like NuStar and Valero effectively agitate for their interests behind the scenes (sometimes crossing the line to serve directly, as in the case of the Nirenberg’s former chief of staff, Jim Greenwood), Eminger is something of a non-entity. Certainly no new coalition emerged to champion coal power in the city.

Staff at the office of Mayor Nirenberg, who serves as an Ex Officio member of CPS’s Board of Trustees, say they’ve never heard of Eminger or the EPN. He isn’t registered with the City of San Antonio as a lobbyist, useful if you want to move the opinions of elected leaders.

An open-records request by Deceleration for email records of CPS Energy’s senior leadership, including Gold-Williams, show no evidence of any interactions with Eminger: nothing sent nor received in 2019 or 2020 (the request was dated November 2020).

And the San Antonio Hispanic Chamber of Commerce?

“As I mentioned on the phone, we have new leadership,” began Janna Andrews, director of marketing and communications for the Chamber when asked last year, “and after looking into this a bit more, we can’t find any record of prior participation, nor is there current participation by staff in this referenced coalition.”

A report attempting to undermine the economic case of San Antonio’s climate plan would be published a few months after Eminger’s email. But it was produced by the TPPF, not Eminger and EPN.

A clearinghouse for hard-right advocacy embraced and elevated by their deep alignment with the Trump agenda, the TPPF predictably spin in favor of fossil fuels and downplay or deny the hazards of a destabilized global climate. But when it comes to the war against climate action, they circulate more broadly (and effectively) than EPN. A survey of their blog shows they are firmly against endangered species and pro fracking; they are against wind subsidies and for pipelines; and they are opposed to a clean-energy transition (because supporting clean energy means hating black people).

The hold over Gold-Williams on coal has been, mostly likely, the chambers of commerce, who have seen in the 1,300MW baseload power provider the key to sustained cheap power–frequently dangled as a lure for corporate recruitment to San Antonio. The habitat of influential climate deniers, the chambers were also outspoken against the City’s proposed climate plan as it advanced. Andrews, who denied an EPN influence at the Hispanic Chamber, perhaps tellingly didn’t respond to repeated questions about the TPPF. Meanwhile, our climate strategies may not be receiving support across the City infrastructure. When, for example, the TPPF helped nurse an anti-democratic House Bill 17 at the Texas Lege that now forbid cities like San Antonio from excluding gas infrastructure from new buildings–a key climate strategy–San Antonio wasn’t there to speak against it. On record in support were an assortment of gas interests who were about to reap whirlwind profits from Uri. The only city on record in opposition at the meeting was the City of Austin.

The STEP Set Up

For many community members critical of CPS, Gold-Williams’s legacy lies in her masterful balance of action and inaction, inside the tension she has maintained between incremental advancement and internal sabotage. The Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), which she rebranded “FlexSTEP,” has been a case study in this strategy. As a deadline approached in 2019 for the utility to reboot its 10-year-old energy conservation program, a key component of the City’s climate response, Gold-Williams started injecting steady skepticism about it into her monthly presentations to the Board. Month after month, she emphasized program costs to customers for the assortment of programs, including free home weatherization programs in low-income communities, while failing to mention the cost savings the programs were producing.

While still an organizer, I participated in a string of small meetings with Gold-Williams since posted on their website lobbying for a stronger STEP program, but never got any clarity about the troubled signals she was sending or why. After all, CPS Energy’s own accounting, shared publicly most recently in its Resource Plan, clearly shows that the program reduced energy use citywide in 2020 by 1.6 terawatt-hours (TWh) of electricity, which the plan described as “enough energy to power 123,000 Greater San Antonio area households for one year.” Meanwhile, average per-capita energy use has fallen during the life of the program, shaving customer bills. But post-Uri, her messaging came to infect the board, with three of four members suggesting the program funding, costing ratepayers about $4 per month on their bills, may need to be cut.

Mayor Nirenberg has remained supportive of STEP, but suggested the program should be studied to see if it was performing as needed. Clearly, the entire Board has forgotten that they hired Austin-based Frontier Energy to audit the program as recently as Fiscal Year 2020. Frontier found that CPS was seeing a return of $2.64 for every dollar invested in the suite of energy-cutting programs, eliminating an estimated $134,143,340 in costs CPS would have otherwise had to spend. Additionally, Frontier reported that STEP has also reduced our emissions of carbon dioxide, the most prevalent and long-lived greenhouse gas, by 108,746 tons. For comparison’s sake, CPS Energy’s Sommers Gas Plant last year emitted roughly 580,000 tons of CO2. (Spruce was responsible for 5.8 million metric tons the same year.)

Summary findings from Frontier Energy report, “Evaluation, Measurement, & Verification of CPS Energy’s FY 2020 DSM Programs” (PDF).

In 2019, ICF undertook a similar assessment for CPS and came to very similar findings as Frontier, but also noted that “the STEP program is supporting the Greater San Antonio Area’s economic growth. Between FY 2009 and FY 2019, STEP programs are estimated to have cumulatively generated 7,500 local job-years and $642 million in economy-wide benefits, including $312 million in labor income. These benefits are expected to grow over time as the bill savings persist, culminating in $3.1 billion in economic value in the Greater San Antonio Area by FY 2048.”

When Rate Advisory Committee Chair Reed Williams carried the Board’s new-found antipathy for STEP to the Municipal Utilities Committee recently to suggest that solar rebates may be unjustly benefiting solar owners to the detriment of City coffers, committee members should been prepared to rebut with Frontier’s findings that those rebates actually bring the best returns in STEP’s parcel of programs. They weren’t. They also haven’t fully stepped to the question of service disconnections.

Until COVID-19 ushered in a massive disruption of the status quo, forced utility disconnections—doubling under Gold-Williams’s watch and impacting from tens to even hundreds of thousands of residents each year—were a non-story. They were dismissed, when mentioned at all, as a natural outflow of the rise of smart meters, which simply made it easier to cut power to the poor and delinquent. Today, our City Council, while working to reduce the impact of disconnections for the first time, has yet to challenge disconnections on principle.

Neither the Mayor nor any Council member has dared to suggest that there should no disconnections and no rate increase until CPS Energy commits to closing its most destructive power plant or agrees to a just rate structure. They have decried racism as a public health threat, while until very recently overlooking the role of utility rate structure—with its disproportionate burden on the lowest income residential customers—in perpetuating racialized intergenerational poverty. The City’s declaration on racism and public health of 2019 considers race and housing costs, race and health, race and income, race and education—but not how the public health burdens of climate disruption, the result of deliberate decision making around fossil fuel use and exploding development, are also inequitably distributed and thus a matter of racial justice.

Relatedly, there been no assessment of the carbon-reduction potential within the transportation sector, long a polluter of communities of color. While COVID led Mayor Nirenberg to toss his Connect SA plan of expanded mass transportation networks around the city center for now, the Texas Department of Transportation has been allowed to advance a monstrous Loop 1604 Expansion Project aimed at converting four lanes of traffic into a 10-lane Northside sprawl machine. (See: “Loop 1604 Expansion: ‘Induced Travel’ to Deliver More Traffic, Pollution.”)

loop 1604 gif
Northwest San Antonio: A tale of quarries and cul de sac’s. Image: Google Earth Engine.

Just a Transition…or Just Transition?

The parallels between global and local patterns of climate inequality reveal the stakes for centering a truly just transition in CPS’s post-Paula next chapter. Globally, climate disruption is a crisis wrought by hyper-consumption at the very top: rich nations and sometimes even richer people. As Oxfam International shows in their recent report “Confronting Carbon Inequality,” during a period of rapid and damaging economic expansion (1990-2015), the world’s wealthiest 1 percent polluted more than twice as much than the poorest half of the world’s population. These patterns of climate debt bear out locally as well: While TxDOT subsidizes growth on the north side of San Antonio for larger (ie. high-energy-consumption) households, we as a community allow the elimination of power to our poorest households for subsistence-level energy use.

Similarly, recent research by Climate Action Tracker has shown that though the US is responsible for fully one-fifth of the global climate pollution to date, the current administration’s target of 50-52 percent reductions of greenhouse gas emissions at 2005 levels by 2030 is “insufficient” based upon what is considered our fair share of reductions. Speaking to the gulf that opens when one considers the difference from merely making an energy transition and committing to a “just,” or justice-based, transition, Climate Action Tracker ranks as ranked “critically insufficient” the amount of aid we have committed to assisting other nations move through this turbulent period.

This same insufficiency holds true for local climate goals. Moreover, if we have truly surrendered transforming the transportation sector, responsible for 40 percent of local greenhouse emissions, securing CPS commitments to close Spruce by 2030 becomes even more critical. At 5.78 million metric tons of climate pollution in 2020, Spruce is the region’s largest climate offender and a sizable chunk of San Antonio’s total 17.3 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions.

Days after Gold-Williams’s resignation, Mayor Nirenberg’s press secretary forwarded his boss’s statement.

It reads:

“I want to thank Paula Gold Willliams for her service to our community. I wish her the best in her future endeavors. CPS Energy is dealing with a number of serious issues simultaneously. The next CEO must ensure that the utility successfully navigates these challenges while ensuring the organization’s stability and addressing the ratepayers’ needs. The next CEO must have the vision required to thrive in the fast-changing energy industry environment and to pursue smart energy strategies for the future.”

Following up, we asked:

Will the mayor will use his positions both as mayor and as CPS Board member to locate and recruit a new CEO with the internal conviction and skills to bring about a just transition to cleaner energy sources, in line with the goals and values of the CAAP?

Does he believe San Antonio deserves to see a commitment from CPS for early Spruce retirement and key rate reform proposals before the utility is granted any rate increase?

Is he worried about CPS’s refusal to agree to meet the CAAP’s 2030 deadline of 41-55% reductions?

Given Nirenberg’s previous declaration of “climate emergency,” we thought these were softball questions. But as his office told Deceleration, there would be no further statements “until they get a bit farther along in the transition process.”

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Our featured image this week draws on the CPS Energy logo and a San Antonio Business-Journal image of Gold-Williams as Woman of the Year.


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