Analysis San Antonio

Cheat Sheet: CPS Energy’s Jan 23 Vote to Close the Coal Plant

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Clock-wise from left: CPS Energy Trustee Willis Mackey, Trustee John Steen, CPS CEO Rudy Garza, City Manager Erik Walsh, Mayor Ron Nirenberg, Trustee Francine Romero. Image Credit: Greg Harman

Key issues and concerns on the way to closing JK Spruce and ushering in what comes next.

Greg Harman

One of Mayor Ron Nirenberg’s first actions as a freshly minted mayor in 2017 was embracing and subsequently shepherding the development of a climate action plan for San Antonio. Community members made it easy, gathering by the dozens outside City Hall demanding action. While the product of more than 90 community volunteers was paused for political considerations during Greg Brockhouse’s last mayoral challenge, San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, functioning today as SA Climate Ready, was only rejected by one sitting Council member: D10’s Clayton Perry. The heart of that plan is a required rapid reduction of climate-destabilizing greenhouse gases, roughly 40 percent by 2030, 70 percent by 2040, and reaching “net zero” by 2050.

CPS Energy’s Board of Trustees unanimously adopted the goals of the CAAP as their own. Smack dab in the middle of San Antonio’s roiling 17M+ million metric tons of emissions is CPS Energy’s own two-unit 1,400MW JK Spruce coal plant. In 2021, that plant alone was responsible for 8M metric tons of climate pollution. Now after more than a year of sprawling two- and three-hour monthly meetings, the members of CPS Energy’s Rate Advisory Committee (RAC) have pushed out a proposal to shut it down.

It’s a remarkable moment. In spite of the intense community insecurities amplified by 2021’s mass power outages during Winter Storm Uri and 2022’s scorching summer of more than two months of 100+-degree days, controversy has settled not on the decision to retire the coal plant years ahead of schedule. The tension is about what will replace its power.

As CPS Energy’s Board of Trustees heard at their December meeting, the RAC’s recommendation is to convert the younger Spruce 2 unit in 2027 to run on gas instead of coal and to close the older Spruce 1 unit in 2028. The shift, they say, will allow the City to hit its 40 percent carbon reduction target by 2030. Yet this proposal—known as Portfolio 2, one generation plan among several considered—misses the mark for 2040 and 2050 and was the product of a considerably split vote.

mon23jan1:00 pmmon5:00 pmCPS Energy Vote on Future of Energy GenerationWhat energy future lies ahead for San Antonio?

Seven RAC members voted for one of two portfolios with far less gas in them: Portfolio 9 (3 votes) would do the coal-to-gas conversation, but close the gas plant much earlier, by 2035. P9 would also nearly triple the amount of wind power. Portfolio 6, meanwhile, would shut down the coal plant, avoid any conversion or gas bridge: unit 1 in 2025 and unit 2 in 2028, while driving hard on both wind, solar, storage, and other technologies, such as geothermal.

(One member—appointee of CPS Board Chair Willis Mackey—elected not to vote at all. But 13 was the threshold required to be able to advance a recommendation, which the group achieved with the inclusion of Chair Williams himself.)

CPS staff have cautioned that skipping the gas conversion will make the city more reliant on purchasing power off the grid during extreme weather events.

A long line of chamber and finance leaders—some of whom also vigorously resisted the CAAP creation—lined up to testify about the wisdom of P2. On January 23, 2023, without a single community-wide meeting to consult the community about this ground-shifting proposal, CPS’s Board of Trustees is expected to seal the deal with P2 (or some modified version of it).

The CAAP committees, meanwhile, have been called together at the last minute for a special joint meeting to provide their feedback.

tue17jan4:30 pmtue6:00 pmSA Climate Ready Joint Advisory Committee Special MeetingCrafting a resonse to CPS Energy's proposal to close the JK Spruce coal plant.

It’s worth noting that while Public Citizen climate organizer DeeDee Belmares made a proposal in late 2021 for the creation of a generation committee within the CAAP to better engage with energy generation issues—a move resisted by some CAAP members—the group has not been directly involved with the RAC process to date.

Below is a summary of the new generation that would come online in San Antonio under the top-voted RAC Portfolios (existing generation, such as nuclear energy from the South Texas Project complex, is not reflected).

New Generation Under Top-Voted Scenarios

A Graphic

Key Issues

What about the climate emergency?

The P2 pathway puts Mayor Nirenberg in an awkward spot. As recently as 2019, he told his colleagues at CPS that he wanted all future purchases to be renewable. He has declared a state of climate emergency in San Antonio.

Understandably, he opened his comments at the last board meeting on a defensive note. It would be “naive,” he said, to imagine there was a straight or simple pathway to reach the CAAP goals.

“We knew full well when we adopted the CAAP as a community that we were laying out goals that we didn’t know how to achieve at the moment—and we’re still working on that,” he said. “So this is a work in progress. … [W]e don’t achieve our CAAP under P2 in 2040 and we have to figure out in the interim how we’re going to fix that.”

With an oblique reference to, perhaps, fast evolving technologies and the costs of accumulating climate disasters being driven by global climate emissions and mostly from fossil fuels combustion, Nirenberg said: “I don’t like that fact that we’re going to say that perhaps one portfolio (P2) is cheaper than the other. At the end of the day, health is real dollars and sense. Ultimately what we pay for these portfolios is going to be determined by the environment in which we find ourselves.”

He also sought to let some of the air out of the RAC’s recommendation as something that would bind the utility in the 2040’s, saying the vote was about determining a “direction” for the utility and urged colleagues to think about it as, perhaps, an 8-year commitment, asking CEO Rudy Garza if this generation conversation would be revisited similarly every five years or so.

To this, Garza didn’t seem eager to commit to a regular repeated process. He stressed that his team is thinking generation regularly but that he could support an annual update about new developments and maybe a generation-planning process of some sort every three years.

“I will say this: To get to this was a ton of effort and a lot of money. … But I’d like to get into execution mode before we can get into some wholesale changes because that takes a lot of effort too.”

Is the climate ‘too far gone’?

It’s a rare day at CPS Energy when reasonable anxieties about the climate crisis break the surface. And while the local environmental community had lifted up public-health expert Adelita Cantú for the last Board opening, Francine Romero has established herself quickly as, perhaps, the most climate literate member. That research, however, led her into a problematic take in December, when she spent a good portion of the discussion explaining why she was leaning toward P2.

“I’m not going to say which one I support,” Romero opened her comments. “Reliability is really important.”

Her comments are worth reviewing in some detail.

“I do believe the climate crisis the the most important challenge we have right now. Sadly I think we’re so far gone down this path that we need to be thinking about adaptation more then we think about mitigation,” Romero said. “And I know that’s a sad kind of controversial thing to say, but I’ve been reading a lot of the science about this. And in some ways things are just so far gone that we really really need to focus on the extreme weather events.”

Deceleration reached out to leading climate thinkers, including climate scientist Michael Mann and science historian Naomi Oreskes, to check our reaction.

Mann, author of the recent book, The Climate Wars,” serves as the Presidential Distinguished Professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at the University of Pennsylvania and is director of the Penn Center for Science, Sustainability, and the Media.

He called the proposal to shift from coal to gas a “delay tactic that gets us nowhere,” while encouraging trustees to stay focused on the full breath of the climate emergency. “There’s no amount of adaptation or resilience that will be adequate if we pursue business-as-usual burning of fossil fuels and warm the planet more than 3C.”

Oreskes is well known as a historian of science at Harvard University and a researcher who has exposed, in particular, the depth of disinformation by fossil fuel interests working to derail climate action.

She wrote Deceleration in response to Romero’s posture:

“Communities around the globe are facing the harsh realities of difficult and expensive adaptation. But that does not mean we should let up on mitigation. Quite the opposite.  Every failure to mitigate makes the challenges of adaptation worse, more expensive, and in some cases insurmountable.

Romero, who insists she has not decided which plan she supports, followed up with Deceleration to say, in part:

“If I thought it was too late to make any difference in mitigation I guess I would support keeping the coal plants open.  But, that is not what I think.  I know that mitigation is still crucial and it is not too late to make some difference.  I doubt there is valid scientific debate that the crisis has not slowed to the extent anyone had hoped, and that the predicted consequences are both apparent and escalating.”

We will be writing more about this later in the week.

At the CPS meeting, Romero also requested from staff more information about the possibility of a stronger energy efficiency efforts, a la CPS’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Program (STEP), to contribute to a just transition away from fossil fuels, the potential to purchase certified “cleaner” gas in contracts (which the EPA is making difficult by refusing to crack down on offenders), and (an interest expressed by Mayor Nirenberg also): leveraging all opportunities found in Biden’s Inflation Reduction Act.

Here is our obligatory reminder that—yes, of course, a stronger STEP program is critical to any movement forward on climate that attempts to protect local residents from extreme weather. We remain convinced that unwarranted prejudices against the suite of programs are the residue of persistent mischaracterizations made by the former CPS CEO, Paula Gold-Williams. Had that history been clarified by sharing a report by Rocky Mountain Institute pointing out in detail these mischaracterizations a stronger STEP would likely have passed last year.

As we wrote in 2022, the RMI analysts “called on Nirenberg and CPS Energy to immediately and publicly correct the record. That didn’t happen.”

On the IRA Nirenberg agreed: “We’ve got to utilize the IRA as best we can to make sure we are lowering the emission portfolio of CPS Energy’s generation so that we can be in the best position to achieve that CAAP goal.”

Keeping the Lights On

Romero referenced comments made by local activists at the meeting in her remarks, seeming to agree that the public-health impacts of more heavily polluting fuels deserved attention—but that so did the public-health impacts of interrupted power.

“The environmental advocates brought up an important point about trying to monetize the health impacts,” she said. “Something that wasn’t brought up was the health impacts of the power going out. And I think we all know that those health impacts were in Winter Story Uri and other lessor episodes.”

She described a birthday wake-up call from Rudy Garza on what is understood today as the hottest day, locally, in all 2022. Garza was texting her he was worried about blackouts, that wind power was required, but that it wasn’t showing up. And yet the lights stayed on, she said, because of “alternate capacities.”

The reality is that two things can be true at once: Climate-driven accelerating extreme weather means that we have to do more to prepare and protect our community, and currently there are technological constraints to doing that without some fossil fuels (or nuclear) in the mix. And yet those same storms, which are decimating other nations and lands at a pace and scale far beyond what we have begun to experience locally, also means shutting down fossil fuels ASAP so that all of us have a chance to survive.

Local Councilmember Ana Sandoval framed the conundrum at last week’s Council meeting.

“I fully understand that reliability is the number one driver here,” Sandoval said. “If we can’t rely on you to run the lights, what’s the point? Some of the irony is that in order to ensure that reliabilty we are relying a little bit more on fossil fuels in this particular scenario.”

Sandoval summarized:

“We’ve come to something like a negative feedback loop, right? In order to protect ourselves from extreme weather that’s caused by climate change we need to use a little bit more fuel that contributes to climate change. But we want to protect our population. We’re kind of in this conundrum.”

Reed Williams has suggested that bringing 6,600MW of wind power, as under the P9 scenario, would be challenging considering supply-chain issues and the time it takes to get access to land rights to expand transmission lines, sometimes via eminent domain. Others, have warned about ERCOT rejecting a coal-plant shutdown if there is not evidence of new generation coming online it deems reliable.

But Garza, speaking to Council on Thursday, said he shares the goal of eliminating the utility’s carbon pollution—but that this additional gas (which could be modified in the future to burn hydrogen) is what is required for reliability and keeping power affordable—especially as the utility is tasked with closing coal units even as older gas units also need to retire.

“At the end of the day, I personally, and my team, we’re accountable to providing reliable energy to a growing community,” Garza said. “We’ve got old assets that we’ve got to retire in the next five years to get to the technology on the other side of this transformation that will carry us into the future. The clock is ticking. There’s urgency on our part to start making investments.”

There’s a lot more to report out about this vote and planning process. We will try to update this post as we are able.

Key Council Quotes

“I still have concerns about the pollution impacts. My district is closer than others to the power plants. … We’re continuing to pin the burden of living with pollution on families on the East Side. That’s my concern. These are mainly poor working-class families. To me that’s environmental racism.”

— Councilmember Jalen McKee-Rodriguez, D2

“I think renewable is the future. I did vote for P9. I felt like there were benefits there. But the majority of the committee thought this wasn’t the time for P9.”

— Councilmember Phyllis Viagran, D3, who served as a RAC member

“I’m celebrating the shutdown on Spruce 1. When it comes to conversation of Spruce 2, I’m not convinced at this point. I am concerned about over-reliance on natural gas and a commitment to this plant extended all the way out to 2065. Natural gas clearly burns cleaner than coal, however there are upstream concerns.”

— Councilmember Mario Bravo, D1

Jan. 17 Update: CAAP Responds

At their meeting Tuesday, January 17, members of the CAAP’s Technical & Community Committee approved a draft statement critical of the RAC’s recommendation of P2 that ads a potentially complicating wrinkle to this energy drama. (The meeting was a special joint meeting with the CAAP Equity Committee, but that body didn’t achieve a quorum of its members and can’t, therefore, join the letter as a co-signer.)

“Portfolio 2 will cost San Antonio rate payers more, and puts them at risk of further price increases in normal and extreme weather due to the increasing volatility of natural gas prices,” the draft statement reads.

Here is the draft voted on at the meeting:

Watch the December CPS meeting referenced here.

Watch the January Council meeting referenced here.

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