Cris Eugster, CPS Energy’s chief operating officer, will leave San Antonio next week to become CEO of a nationwide power producer.
In his 12 years in San Antonio, Eugster has been a force for clean energy, significantly expanding CPS Energy’s solar products and energy efficiency programs. He spearheaded its FlexPower Bundle, a plan to replace aging natural gas power plants with solar and batteries, backed by reliable power in a form the utility is still discussing. His last day is March 1.
“The opportunities don’t come up very often,” Eugster said of taking a CEO job at Issaquah, Washington-based NAES Corp. “For me, the fit was right on this one, and that’s why I’m leaving. It wasn’t an easy decision.”
Eugster grew up in College Station and returned to Texas after earning his doctorate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. He came to San Antonio for a CPS Energy job in 2009 as an executive vice president after serving as the first chief sustainability officer for the City of Houston under former Mayor Bill White. He was also the first person at CPS Energy with that title.
“San Antonio is positioned with all the right pieces to really be a leader in clean energy and to do it in a real way,” Eugster said in a Friday phone interview. “Here you have a municipally owned utility, both on the power side as well as on the water side. San Antonio’s a big city, but it’s also a very connected city.”
He came to San Antonio around a time of upheaval, when CPS Energy’s failed nuclear plant expansion in 2010 led to a fierce legal battle between the utility and its former private-sector partners. CPS Energy ended up writing off nearly $400 million from its books on the deal that never came to fruition.
Eugster sees parallels between 2010 and the blowback CPS Energy faces now after a statewide power crisis caused by a winter storm last week that left more than 4 million Texas households without power in below-freezing temperature, often for days. Eugster said he had decided to accept the NAES job in January, weeks before the storm hit.
“These types of crises and disruptions lead to change,” Eugster said. “In fact, there’s an opportunity to come back even stronger after the things you’ve gone through, as you learn from them.”
He referenced San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan – specifically the “adaptation” section. Though scientists are mixed on the influence of climate change on last week’s storm, severe droughts, floods, and hurricanes are among the other extreme weather San Antonio is on track to see more of in the future.
“Climate change is happening,” Eugster said. “We have to be more resilient.”
Eugster’s new role puts him in charge of a company fully focused on power generation with 3,800 employees and nationwide reach. NAES is a wholly owned subsidiary of Japanese conglomerate Itochu Corp. Eugster said he will keep a “home base” in San Antonio as well.
“They are trying to navigate through same set of changes that all of us are with the changing industry landscape,” Eugster said. “How do you transition from a set of resources that has been reliable and affordable for decades to a set of resources that are going to be zero-emissions but need to have that same reliability and affordability?”
Eugster, 55, said he wanted to take on the CEO role “before I hang up my cleats.” The NAES job isn’t the first time he’s been in the running.
In 2018, Eugster steered clear of a political hurricane involving a North Florida utility. Eugster was a one of four finalists for a CEO job at JEA, a Jacksonville-based electric, water, and sewer utility that became embroiled in scandal over efforts to privatize it. Last year, federal authorities opened a corruption probe involving JEA officials and the Jacksonville city government.
“It turned out to be such a circus,” Eugster said.
In San Antonio, Eugster’s command of the facts – on the environment and on the realities of supplying reliable power for an entire city – earned him admiration among local business interests and environmentalists alike.
“The really good thing about Cris over the years is he would always engage,” said Russell Seal, a retired pharmacist and Sierra Club activist who has followed CPS Energy closely for the past decade. “I will greatly miss that.”
“I have known and worked with Cris for several years and have always been impressed by his knowledge, expertise, and leadership,” said Richard Perez, CEO of the San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, in a prepared statement Friday. “While the community will miss Cris’s contributions, we know he will excel in his new role.”
Seal said his impression of Eugster changed over the years, particularly after the departure of former CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby. Environmentalists often praise Beneby and contrast him with Gold-Williams, who they see as less committed to acting aggressively to reduce emissions and stop climate change.
“He was throttled by the parameters that he’d been given,” Seal said of Eugster.
Asked how his role changed after Beneby left in 2015, Eugster said that “every CEO has a different style and different priorities.” He described Gold-Williams as “thorough in her thinking,” “one of the most dedicated leaders I’ve ever seen” and someone who believes in “community engagement.”
“Sometimes it doesn’t feel like that, maybe from stakeholders on the outside,” Eugster said. “But her heart is very much in bringing the community along with our journey, this very complex journey, that we’re all going through together.”
Gold-Williams thanked Eugster in a Friday statement for “his numerous contributions to CPS Energy and San Antonio.”
“We are proud of his accomplishments and congratulate him on this next phase of his career,” Gold-Williams, said, adding that his “passion for and support of our Flexible Path and FlexPower Bundle strategies will be long felt in our community for decades to come.”
Eugster’s departure comes with a reshuffling of CPS Energy’s top leadership and the split of the operations department he heads into two divisions.
Frank Almaraz, the utility’s chief administrative and business development offer, will become CPS Energy’s chief power, sustainability, and business development officer. Paul Barham, a former senior vice president, will be promoted to chief grid optimization and resiliency officer. Lisa Lewis, another senior vice president, will become the utlity’s new chief administrative officer.
“We were very quickly mobilized and were able to promote from within,” Gold-Williams told reporters Friday.
Eugster described his departure as carrying “a lot of emotions.”
“San Antonio’s a special place and CPS Energy’s a special place,” he said.
CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here.