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Climate emissions are trending down in San Antonio—though far from fast enough. Since CPS Energy’s pledge to transition away from coal power, the City’s chief sustainability officer sees glimmers of hope (and a new bike master plan) ahead.
Next month, Doug Melnick begins his tenth year as San Antonio’s chief sustainability officer. He came to San Antonio in March of 2014, after serving as the director of the Office of Energy and Sustainability in Albany, New York. From 2017 to 2019, Melnick helped guide the development of a climate action plan for San Antonio—a process that involved roughly 90 volunteers and was propelled by local community organizing efforts and a then newly elected Mayor Ron Nirenberg. While recent reductions in climate emissions—now trending downward at a couple percentage points per year at 16.65 million metric tons per year—are not near the level required to hit our climate goals by 2030, Melnick spoke with Deceleration last week about wins he sees taking shape. He also discussed some ongoing frustrations—noting a decision to further idle on the climate plan’s focus on energy use in buildings by heavy users. He closed our brief conversation with an invitation for stronger community efforts to exert more pressure on elected leaders and entrenched bureaucracy (OK, a bit of our spin here), to “push the envelope” (his words) to achieve the deeper changes needed to meet the challenges of our moment.
Deceleration Q&A with Doug Melnick
Deceleration: I understand it’s been nearly 10 years since you came to San Antonio.
Doug Melnick: I’ve been doing this sort of work for 20 years and it’s always interesting how time flies. Before San Antonio I was in Albany, New York. Same challenges trying to implement good planning, good sustainability practices. They are implementing them now [in Albany]. So the foundation was set and I think at the start of my tenth year here, there have been frustrations. But I think we’re in a completely different place than when I first got here. Climate is a known issue. I think it’s something that people acknowledge. Our department is up to 13 people. … When I started there were probably eight people.
And you’ve got the Bloomberg American Cities Climate Challenge staff.
That’s right. We are prioritizing the purchase of electric vehicles. We are working with departments on making sure they are in alignment with our climate objectives, working on the huge bond program, making sure that this historic investment is being leveraged to do more than just what was originally intended, but actually helping build resilience and looking at how we design and build. CPS voting to remove coal from the portfolio: nine years ago that was nowhere near something anybody could have hoped for.
I think there’s lots of good stuff going on. But, as you know, it’s not enough, it’s not fast enough. And I think the big thing right now we’re focused on is, one: all the federal dollars, it’s unprecedented dollars for climate mitigation, resilience.
The inflation reduction act is an enormous opportunity, not just for us, but all our partner organizations, as well as the community. There’s considerable tax rebates for everyone. The other thing we’re focused on is trying to look at this new sustainability fund that Councilwoman Sandoval helped in creating: the Resiliency, Energy Efficiency, and Sustainability fund. There is anywhere from $8M to $10M every year for the next five years for this work. So how do we program that?
CPS is celebrating 30,000 homes weatherized. I know we’ve talked about energy production, but also energy consumption in our buildings. You have benchmarking of energy use in buildings, is that still going on? Is that a goal for the year?
Benchmarking is still bookmarked. I think we’re going to have to wait until after the election.
Too tender a topic?
I think it is a controversial topic that I think we want to make sure we let some of the dust settle from the election.
I heard you telling Council that what you want to be able to do is measure energy use by buildings by the property owners and offer incentives for them to improve and save money.
I think benchmarking requirements are at this point in over 40 cities. It’s really straightforward. It does require some accountability. It targets large buildings. We were looking at 50,000 square feet and above. It requires once-a-year reporting to the City of the building’s performance on a scale of zero to 100 using a free EPA tool. It’s very easy to do. And it requires a public disclosure element so that was the big concern. ‘If my building isn’t performing, people may know about it.’ But, as you said, part of it is not just highlighting building performance, it’s tying incentives to that. We want everybody to succeed. And so it’s getting dollars, additional resources, in addition from what people can get from CPS Energy, to improve their buildings, improve their performance. But the thing it really does that we’ve seen in other cities is there’s a market component: It does drive the market because people want to put their best foot forward. And in cities across the country, just by having a mandatory building benchmarking disclosure program has reduced consumption in that sector by five, 10, to 15 percent, because it drives the market. We think it’s still a really valuable tool. But it’s going to require additional conversations.
We have early numbers on our carbon reductions, they are still 2 to 2.5 percent reductions per year?
I was surprised. I was expecting an increase [in emissions]. I was modestly happy that at least there was a minor reduction. What it shows is that a lot more needs to be done. As a part of that we need to start thinking about updating the SA Climate Ready plan. It’s supposed to be updated every three to five years. I think we’re well on our way based upon new climate science that the federal government is finalizing the next iteration of the National Climate Assessment.
I believe it’s prudent for us next year to revisit and update the [climate] plan. Let’s take a look at our targets and then I think there really needs to be a conversation with the community and Council about what do we focus on. We can’t do 88 strategies. What are the top 10? What are the top 15?
So that’s going to be a big conversation we’re going to start having now. And I think the other really big thing we’re focused on is urban heat island mitigation. One of the challenges of our climate work is it’s not just reducing emissions, it’s also adapting. So we need to be able to do both. And just based upon this past summer we know what we’re in for and so how do we start implementing new policies? How do we start retrofitting homes, buildings, particularly affordable housing units, make them prepared for this extreme weather? How do we start cooling neighborhoods? And I’m super happy where we are. We’re actually rolling out pilots, developing the programs. And we’re part of a pretty exclusive club: L.A., Phoenix, Miami, as well as some international cities, trying to tackle this. It’s not easy but we have the tools. It’s more how do you prioritize the interventions, and then how do you fund them. I think this is going to be a really exciting year from that perspective.
We didn’t talk about transportation.
I think one of the most exciting things is our transportation department is kicking off an update of a new San Antonio Bike Master Plan, which is huge. Our office led the development of the original bike master plan. It’s been quite some time. One of the things I’d like to see what a priority network looks like. How do we start connecting employment centers, where people live, where people want to go, and creating an interconnected systems of protected bike infrastructure so people can not just relay on the trail system, which is great. But how do they use biking as an actual mode of of transportation all the time? And then again continue to see VIA advance the rapid transit network because people need options. If we don’t give them the options to use something other than their vehicle, they’re not going to get out of their cars. So those are two items.
How do you recommend folks who want to be involved in these conversations. You’ve got two SA Climate Ready committees who meet monthly. Is that an avenue for people to bring their ideas or tap into what is happening with the city?
That’s one option. Another option is we have a sustainability dashboard that’s a sort of a one-stop of everything that we’re doing: SASustainability.com. It also provides information as to what our partner agencies are doing and what residents and businesses can do. I think we’re always open to come out and talk to folks. So if you’re part of a group, whether it’s a faith-based organization, neighborhoods association, business group, we’d be more than happy to talk. I think one of the things that’s a priority really this year and going forward is expanding the amount of conversation we’re having in the community because at the end of the day it’s folks who live in San Antonio, work in San Antonio, they are going to set the agenda. And our city leaders are going to listen. For folks who are really interested in climate and addressing it need to speak up and need to talk to their representatives and your fellow community members to make your voice heard. Because I think it’s going to take more than a department, more than a small group of people, this needs to be a number-one agenda item because it effects everything that everyone is concerned about in our community.
It feels like maybe when you first arrived in San Antonio some of the conversations were less tied to our lived experience, right? And now would you agree that this is really about survival for many residents?
When I first got here I had a few conversations on the subject of climate and it wan’t something that was on the radar or there really wasn’t a willingness to engage on it. That’s not the case now. I think based upon what we’re experiencing here locally, based upon what we are seeing nationally and globally, you can not avoid it. Everyone has resolved for the most part that this is real. The question is what are we going to do. What can we do and how quickly can we do it? I think San Antonio is poised very well to lead in this space. We’re doing a tremendous amount. The City, CPS, SAWS, the River Authority are leading. What we need are more community support to really push the envelope and really take some big steps that are really going to make some substantial changes that are really needed.
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