The utility crisis has entered the San Antonio mayoral race, with challenger Greg Brockhouse on Tuesday calling for the resignation of CPS Energy’s President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams.
Brockhouse, a former District 6 councilman who took two-term Mayor Ron Nirenberg to a runoff in 2019 before losing narrowly to Nirenberg’s 51 percent of the vote, laid into Gold-Williams’ leadership in a news release and phone interview Tuesday.
“Their response is just woefully inadequate and it’s completely tone-deaf,” Brockhouse said, pointing to the utility’s brand new headquarters tower and parking garage at 500 McCullough Ave., which remained lit even as the utility forced outages across the city in mid-February.
He added that Gold-Williams “runs that organization about as professionally as you possibly can” but argued that CPS Energy should have better prepared its equipment for winter weather and issued strong, clear warnings to tell its customers they could lose power for days.
“We knew enough to know this was catastrophic-level freeze for San Antonio,” he said.
The storm left hundreds of thousands of residents without power and water for days following unprecedented energy system failures across Texas. San Antonio mayors serve as CPS Energy and San Antonio Water System board members and have more power than others on City Council to hold the utilities accountable for their share of the problem.
“This is the question: what is the future of this entire utility?” Brockhouse said of CPS Energy. “I think we have to have that conversation, especially in the upcoming election.”
CPS Energy officials declined to comment on Brockhouse’s remarks.
In a phone interview Tuesday, Nirenberg said he’s “most interested in figuring out what happened so it never happens again.”
“Personnel decisions are premature until we get to the bottom of what occurred over the past couple weeks,” Nirenberg said. “Accordingly, I’ve empaneled a group to do an independent investigation of the preparedness, the communications, and the response that we experienced.”
Brockhouse proposed a set of reforms, calling for increasing the number of CPS Energy board members from five to seven. Councilman John Courage (D9) had offered the same idea in a Feb. 25 newsletter. (Brockhouse said he didn’t know Courage had floated the idea already.)
Adding two board members would help add more energy expertise to the board, which Brockhouse described as being loaded with “political appointees.” CPS Energy board members nominate their own replacements, with City Council voting on whether to confirm them.
“Politics is always going to be involved in this, you can’t remove that completely, but I think a little flexibility to bring industry experts onboard is going to help call balls and strikes with political appointees,” Brockhouse said.
On one point, Nirenberg and Brockhouse agree: the utility should not have moved to delay responses to open records requests seeking records created during the week of the crisis. CPS Energy did so on Feb. 16, arguing it needed additional time to fulfill requests following the disaster.
“This is not a time to suspend access to information that we need publicly to examine what happened and to ensure we’re prepared for events in the future,” Nirenberg said.
Brockhouse focused his criticism locally, mostly glossing over the statewide nature of the energy system failures. More than 4 million households across Texas were without power during the crisis, which saw power generators and natural gas supply systems all over the state struggle to perform in extreme cold.
“I don’t give a damn what happens in the rest of the state,” Brockhouse said. “You can’t sit there and say, ‘Well, Austin was out too, so it is what it is.’”
Brockhouse also had less to say about whether the utility could have implemented forced outages differently or what its overarching energy strategy should be. He criticized CPS Energy’s decision to close its Deely coal units in 2018, a commitment made by Gold-Williams’ predecessor Doyle Beneby.
Environmental activists have attacked CPS Energy for moving too slowly to shift away from fossil fuels, which climate scientists say are the main cause of the current rapid increase in global temperatures, even launching a petition effort that would have forced CPS Energy to close its Spruce coal plants, if successful.
Brockhouse painted CPS Energy as a utility overly focused on wind and solar power.
“They got so obsessed with renewables and matching climate action plans and appeasing politicians that they forgot the basics of their job,” Brockhouse said.
CPS Energy’s mix of power plants and generating stations is 45 percent natural gas, 18 percent coal, 15 percent wind, 14 percent nuclear, and 7 percent solar, with less than 1 percent landfill gas. Each type of energy source suffered problems during the storm, Gold-Williams has said.
“This was not just a challenge of renewables, this was a failure of gas, coal, and nuclear power in Texas,” Nirenberg said. “Any notion otherwise is simply factually incorrect.”
Brockhouse’s central complaint was a lack of preparedness for the storm and a poor communications effort afterward.
“While I’ve had good working relationships with the folks over there, the reality is this has been a very insular, not very community-focused response,” Brockhouse said.
Asked about this, Nirenberg said CPS Energy’s communications are “improving” and that the committee would investigate further.
“Communication before, during, and after the storm is one of the focuses of the select committee for CPS, for SAWS, and for our overall emergency response,” Nirenberg said. “There absolutely can be and will be improvements.”
Brockhouse said that if he were mayor, CPS Energy would have “no executive session meetings, unless it came down to absolutely financial requirements where we’re in a bidding process or something.” Recently, the CPS Energy board held two executive session votes amid a debate over whether to release a document that was stamped “public information.” Public power utilities are allowed to vote on “competitive” matters in closed session.
Brockhouse also called for “complete transparency in open records” and a review of board members who have served more than one 5-year term.
“I would take a much more activist role,” Brockhouse said, comparing himself against Nirenberg. “I would be fighting for citizens. I think you have to have conversations about the governance structure of CPS Energy, the pay and bonus structure, the Flexible Path [to reduce the use of fossil fuels].”
Nirenberg said he’s pushed for more transparency at both utilities. During his time in office, CPS Energy has shifted to allowing public comments at its meetings and streaming them live online. He successfully pushed for an advisory committee to meet publicly and study CPS Energy’s rates. He has said he won’t support any more bonuses paid to its CEOs.
“By design, these organizations operate independently with their own operations and governance,” Nirenberg said. “Aligning them with our City priorities is a full-contact effort.”
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.