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With our electric grid straining and the region blistering under record-breaking temps, why do we continue to undermine and shortchange the programs best able to keep our families safe from extreme weather?
After decades of international efforts intended to slow and reverse global climate emissions, industry and governments around the world released more heat-trapping gases than ever during 2021. And with Congress deadlocked on critical issues like a Green New Deal, the religious cult known as the U.S. Supreme Court recently voted to confound federal efforts to regulate climate-warming pollutants in power production.
“This decision is going to seriously slow U.S. progress in reducing emissions of greenhouse gasses and avoiding a dangerous climate change,” Princeton’s Michael Oppenheimer told PBS News last week.
While we will remain harried—until voters decide otherwise—by christofascists in Austin who view burning to fossil fuels and fully loaded automatic weapons as the pinnacle products of religious freedom, cities like San Antonio should now consider themselves the de facto leaders in responding to the global climate crisis.
“That’s why the Supreme Court decision is so disheartening, because this is a national issue,” said Doug Melnick, San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer. “When you start talking about what really needs to happen locally around energy infrastructure, transportation infrastructure, I mean these are major investments that are going to need federal support.”
Minus that support, what chance do we have?
The fact that San Antonians own their own electric, gas, and water utilities should make local action easier. But nearly three years in, none of 2019’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan‘s top-lined action recommendations have been put in motion. Blame the confounding influence of dismissive business elites and a failure of elected political leadership.
“I don’t think I want to say the mayor hasn’t done shit, other than passing the [Climate Action and Adaptation Plan],” said Russell Seal, a longtime engaged member of the local Sierra Club. “But the CAAP has been meaningless. We’ve had, as far as I can tell, zero implementation.”
The climate plan is intended to guide the city in reducing its share of the emissions responsible for climate crisis while better preparing residents for a world of ever-rising temperatures and increasing violent weather events. It was developed over two years with more than 90 community volunteers. As a former Sierra Club organizer, I served on the plan’s steering committee.
Core elements of that plan include improving energy use in buildings through a “benchmarking” initiative, updating building codes to smooth the way for electric vehicle and rooftop solar infrastructure, improved mass transit options, and cleaning up the power supply at city-owned CPS Energy.
Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick acknowledges the problem of pace.
“All the components are there,” Melnick said of local planning efforts. “The challenge is we don’t have a lot of time and we’re experiencing [extreme weather] now.”
So far, the only significant element to advance has been a rebooting of a moderately aggressive energy efficiency program previously known as the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP). A suite of programs that have included rebates for rooftop solar, free home weatherization programs, and energy-reducing retrofits for businesses, STEP is credited with reducing local energy demand by more than 900 megawatts since adoption in 2009—more than the annual generation capacity of either of our two remaining coal-fired units at Calaveras Lake.
In the buildup to the 2019 climate vote, Melnick often warned of forecasts showing that San Antonio would see 90 more days over 100 degrees by 2100. Last month, he now points out, included 17 such days and set a string of heat records. Already this year, likely to go down as our hottest ever, we’ve suffered through more than 25 days topping 100 degrees. Heat-related illnesses are rising.
Since the deadly grid collapse during 2021’s Winter Storm Uri, a growing slice of the population hasn’t been able to keep up with their steeply rising monthly bills, costs driven by the extreme heat and spiking natural gas costs being passed through. The climate emergency is very much with us—perilously so for many residents—and is inescapably now primarily a question of local response. Yet Mayor Ron Nirenberg apparently sat on a critical report for five months—even shielding it from his colleagues on the CPS Energy Board of Trustees—that all but begged for an immediate and public correction of important energy information that the analysts claim had been repeatedly mischaracterized by the utility.
Dated December 10, 2021, a 21-page technical review of the utility’s January 2021 Resource Plan by respected global sustainability research group Rocky Mountain Institute states that CPS misled San Antonio residents about the cost of an energy transition to cleaner power sources.
The report accuses CPS of downplaying the benefits of energy efficiency programs contained in the Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP) and limiting modeled coal-retirement scenarios to “suboptimal” choices, creating “greater operational risks” for the utility. In other words, during the tenure of former CPS CEO Paula Gold-Williams, who resigned in October 2021, communications about our energy choices were a con designed to make cleaner, climate-responsive actions look more costly than they actually are.
The analysts called on Nirenberg and CPS Energy to immediately and publicly correct the record. That didn’t happen. Investigation into the document’s origin and chain of custody suggests that no one outside of Nirenberg’s office likely even saw the report for another five months.
It’s unclear when exactly the paper was passed from the mayor’s office to former city councilman Reed Williams, who Nirenberg tapped to lead the utility’s Rate Advisory Committee (RAC). But it was sometime in May, Williams told Deceleration.
“When I got it, I wasn’t told it was confidential. So I didn’t treat it that way,” Williams said.
Williams passed it along to some RAC members, including, apparently, dirty-energy investment advisor Dana McGinnis, who shipped it off by email on Wednesday, June 22, with a lengthy complaint. CC’ing the entirety of the RAC, all city council members and the CPS Board, McGinnis wrote: “Whoever commissioned the report should be known. … Why has this report not been brought to light since it brings up many of the questions RAC has posed to CPS management and to RAC for possible discussion?”
McGinnis’s complaint centers on Rocky Mountain Institute’s statements about CPS’s failure to better forecast natural gas futures.
“Who knows if CPS could have done anything about the rapid rise in gas prices that has affected so many customer bills, but we never had serious discussions about the risks that were apparent in December and have now come home to roost in June,” McGinnis wrote. “This failure is irresponsible of management and of council.”
‘No big bombshells’
In the months following the delivery of RMI’s report to Mayor Nirenberg in December, staff at CPS Energy developed a trio of potential program replacements to carry forward the utility’s energy-efficiency work—also a key aspect of the city’s climate plan. Ultimately, CPS staff recommended program funding in line with what has historically been dedicated to STEP. None of the alternatives developed were as aggressive as those proposed by community clean-energy advocates.
RMI’s analysts had a lot of say about the way STEP had been presented previously by CPS’s leadership and in the Resource Plan.
“CPS routinely emphasizes only the costs of STEP without acknowledging [the] benefits. In fact, all three charts [in the Resource Plan] imply there is a net cost of efficiency and conservation efforts. … Which, according to CPS’s own program review is not true.”
“CPS should immediately revise is Customer Affordability charts to not distort the perceived cost of key decisions and to better inform the public of the very real, challenging choices CPS and San Antonio need to make. Accordingly, CPS should publicly acknowledge these mistakes and correct the record to rebuild trust with customers and key stakeholders.”
CPS trustees themselves first had the opportunity to discuss the RMI report in the waning minutes of their June 26 board meeting. Former board chair John Steen complained to staff that he first received the report in an email “over the weekend.”
Acting CPS EO Rudy Garza said he first saw it only a couple of weeks before Steen. “Our staff just kind of got wind of it and are just starting to take a look at it,” he said.
Given the nature of the document, Steen was uncharacteristically mild and the conversation was brief.
Relative newcomer Trustee Francine Romero hit back at Steen’s complaint, saying it wasn’t “fair” to “call staff on the carpet” over a report they didn’t commission. She shifted the conversation away from the document’s origins and critiques by downplaying the significance of the 2021 Resource Plan criticized by RMI, calling it “really preliminary” and “very preliminary.”
“There could be all kinds of reports,” Romero said, clearly working to dilute any outrage. “I don’t think there’s any big bombshells so much.”
No one turned their heads to ask fellow board member Nirenberg, who sat quietly sipping a bottled water, why he apparently kept the report from them while the community vigorously debated the future of key energy programs that Rocky Mountain Institute said had been mischaracterized by the utility’s leadership.
Closing the brief discussion, Nirenberg only offered that the report “was based on no new data” and was “one of the deliverables from the American Cities Climate Challenge [intended] to help meet the CAAP goals.”
He didn’t respond to two messages from Deceleration about the matter.
For those deep in the work of climate justice, Rocky Mountain Institute’s findings are a vindication of years of sustained outcry over CPS Energy’s factual skewing of basic energy realities. Multiple third-party reviews of the program, such as one by Frontier Energy in 2021, have shown it producing financial benefits several times greater than the costs involved while removing millions of tons of greenhouse gases and criteria pollutants from the air.
STEP have not only reduced reliance on polluting power sources (in San Antonio that’s mostly a diabolical trio: coal, gas, and nuclear). STEP’s free weatherization programs also boost local employment and protect residents from extreme heat and cold snaps by making their homes “tighter” and therefore more energy secure. For fiscal conservatives, energy efficiency means not having to build power plants and taking on hundreds of millions or billions of dollars of new debt.
With so many reasons to go big on STEP, RAC and CPS Board members—without the benefit of Rocky Mountain Institute’s analysis—quibbled over fundamentals of the program. While Nirenberg and Romero ultimately supported a more aggressive STEP, the bulk of the board wasn’t convinced, ultimately voted for continuing of the status quo with a $350-million, five-year program intended to reduce energy use by 1% annually.
During an extended debate in May, Trustees John Steen, Janie Gonzalez, and Willis Mackey all expressed various reservations about STEP—many of which may have been resolved by understanding how CPS’s own leadership had previously and repeatedly misled them about the program’s benefits.
Members of the Recall CPS coalition and others routinely spoke up for STEP at public board meetings. In late 2020 and 2021, a small group of us engaged directly in breakout meetings with senior CPS leadership to lobby for a stronger program.
In a Zoom meeting on December 18, 2020, we challenged CPS Energy’s leadership over the inaccurate portrayal of STEP-related costs and challenges related to retiring the Spruce coal plant early.
A few days later we followed up to ask why they were only publicly projecting the costs of STEP and not the money the programs save the community.
Then in January of 2021 we followed up again, requesting the economic assumptions used to describe STEP’s costs. “Obviously, these programs bring tremendous benefits, which is why CPS pursues them, however those benefits are neglected in the presentations we’ve seen to date on these programs,” we wrote.
The Resource Plan dropped the same day.
Winter storm Uri hit in mid-February with those of us pushing a stronger STEP program at loggerheads with CPS on several key points.
We were promised an explanation of their energy accounting that never arrived.
In March, 2021, we made another attempt, writing in part:
“We continue to believe CPS Energy’s framing of the STEP program focuses only on costs (increases in rates) and ignores the obvious benefits (reduced bills), therefore it fails to value energy efficiency and other demand-side management resources for the flexible assets they are. Energy efficiency is commonly referred to as the “first fuel,” not the “fifth fuel” as CPS calls it in their Flexible Power Resource Plan. Sierra Club and our consultants plan to generate a true bill impacts analysis in line with industry standards and full cost-benefit analysis of the STEP program. We implore CPS Energy to do the same in their presentations to customers, elected officials and the public.”
The stranding of the RMI report in the mayor’s office not only undermined community efforts for just accounting at CPS, it also appears to be emblematic of a leadership style that sets critical agendas in motion but quickly allows their capture and co-option by the local business elite.
Consider the state of the following key CAAP components, all of which must advance to move San Antonio effectively through our necessary energy transition.
A working group organized in 2018 by District 9 Councilman John Courage intended to reach consensus on electric vehicle and solar building codes spun its wheels for years, failing to advance any recommendation due to implacable resistance from two members of the local real estate community.
Worse, with the recent disbanding of that round table, these same representatives of the Greater San Antonio Builders Association and the San Antonio Apartment Association have been promoted to oversee code committees on buildings and energy. With the exclusion of any members from the electrification or renewable energy community we can only expect sustained failures.
Meanwhile, a CAAP-proposed benchmarking program to require annual reporting on energy use by commercial property owners to help heavy users reduce their loads has been roundly rejected by key business stakeholders. When Melnick at the Office of Sustainability appeared before council to update members on the proposal he ran into a buzzsaw of accusations and belittling comments from the elected body’s conservative flank.
In February, a small breakthrough at CPS Energy’s Board of Trustees was achieved when board members acknowledged for the first time that they are bound by the CAAP’s 2030 interim greenhouse-reduction goal (a goal that only exists because of dogged lobbying and organizing by local community members). They then directed the RAC to prepare a recommendation for closing the utility’s JK Spruce coal plant by 2030. However, debate within the RAC on generation issues has largely been limited to a proposal to close one coal unit while converting the other to run on gas.
“They’ve modeled a gas conversion, and that’s it,” said DeeDee Belmares, a RAC member and climate activist.
Gaps of knowledge
Belmares said that not having access to the Rocky Mountain Institute’s findings about the benefits of STEP needlessly clouded debates about the program before its Council vote.
“It would have helped people to better understand how critically important it is to have energy efficiency programs and alleviate the concerns about the bill impacts of having to shut Spruce earlier than planned,” she said. “We have to do everything we can to reduce demand.”
This week’s pleas from the optimistically named Electric Reliability Council of Texas urging the public to dial back power usage or face possible outages should be a clarion call for massive energy conservation programs to protect the public health.
Acting CPS CEO Garza responded to questions from Deceleration by repeating his message to the CPS Board of Trustees that the Resource Plan critiqued in the RMI report is itself “dated” and directed attention to the work of CPS Energy’s RAC.
“The financial modeling that will accompany our resource planning model work will advise us on our options,” he wrote Deceleration. “Once the Board gives us direction, we’ll figure out how to pay for our future plan to power our community with the lowest possible impact to our customers.”
Belmares said the Rocky Mountain Institute report will help the RAC chart a course for early coal retirement, a proposal due to be completed by the end of this year. “This report will fill in gaps of knowledge that CPS Energy is not giving RAC members because they are not doing the resource planning process right,” she said.
The lack of modeling in the Resource Plan was a major complaint by the Rocky Mountain Institute analysts. All of the report’s authors were on vacation last week and not available for comment on this story, a Rocky Mountain Institute media rep said.
Deceleration asked Belmares if the RAC has discussed integrating extreme weather events in its modeling, as the report recommends and post-Uri climate realities demand.
“We haven’t talked about that, actually,” she said.
RAC chair Williams said he didn’t focus much on the Rocky Mountain Institute report when he received it in May, even as members of the RAC struggled to come to a consensus on the importance of STEP ahead of an important Council vote.
Like Romero, Garza and Nirenberg, he sought to shift attention away from the document and the mayor’s failure to act upon its most urgent recommendations. Most of those culpable for the Resource Plan’s issues have left the utility already anyway, Williams said. What matters, he said, is the RAC’s work ahead.
“We can go back and replay that game, but the game I’m worried about is the game we’re going to finish up in November,” Williams said of the RAC’s charge to model coal-free futures. “I’m trying to get it right. I’m not sitting here trying to kick people in the ass.”
While the new STEP program evolved in important ways, such as more specifically targeting low-income residents and expanding free weatherization services to multi-family buildings, it didn’t expand the energy-reduction targets nearly to the scale that is needed.
Considering the memory of Uri and today’s grueling extreme heat, the life-saving quality of simple insulation has been one of the most glaring omissions from the STEP debate capped with a Council vote last month.
Following the Supreme Court’s June 30 ruling sandbagging the EPA’s ability to regulate climate emissions at power plants (justification for which the conservative justices simply fabricated), CPS Energy officials released a statement reaffirming the utility’s commitment to “transitioning to cleaner energy to ensure climate resiliency.”
Their success here is imperative.
Yet CPS’s generation transition is still only one of several local climate responses that, while surely benefiting from any potential federal assistance, but must advance one way or another. Considering the many failures to achieve either the rapid or deep climate progress required, it appears that regular ass-kicking, to draw on Williams’s colorful phrasing, may be a requirement.
Standing all of these climate efforts up together will require more political leadership—and more public pressure—than many of us are used to seeing in San Antonio, said Seal.
“When we originally passed the first STEP program it’s because former mayor Hardberger pounded his first on the table [saying to CPS], ‘Come back with a program.’ And he carried it by his gravitas,” Seal said. “Ron has not put any gravitas on getting a substantial program done. He and the rest of council.”
A condensed version of this essay is available in this week’s San Antonio Current.