CPS Energy’s solar programs and energy efficiency initiatives will continue for another year while officials ponder the utility’s next energy-saving moves. 

San Antonio City Council members voted unanimously Thursday to extend CPS Energy’s Save For Tomorrow Energy Plan (STEP), a more than decade-old conservation program. The council’s vote means the utility’s home solar, weatherization programs, rebates for energy-efficient appliances, and other programs will continue until 2021, at an estimated cost of $70 million. 

While council members praised the programs and CPS Energy’s efforts to tell its customers about them, many said they wanted more discussion over the next year about what such initiatives would look like over the next 10 years. 

CPS Energy leaders call the next generation of its program “FlexSTEP,” a name derived from what they call “the Flexible Path.” That’s CPS Energy’s forecast for its energy mix by roughly mid-century. The utility has said it plans to get half its energy from renewable sources by the early 2040s, though it might continue burning coal into the 2060s. 

That plan is in conflict with the City’s climate goals of going carbon-neutral by 2050, as stated in the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan adopted in October. That plan has been the source of tension over the future of the municipally-owned electric and gas utility. 

“I think all of us are concerned about what’s going to be in that FlexSTEP and how much public input will go into that,” Councilman John Courage (D9), said at the meeting. 

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams told council members the utility welcomes the input. She called the one-year funding a “bridge” that offers more time to “tighten up” CPS Energy’s list of solar and energy efficiency programs. 

Enacted in 2009, STEP was meant to help San Antonio avoid the costs of building a new power plant. Estimates at the time were that a plant would cost at least $1 billion up front, not including maintenance costs. 

Instead, CPS Energy invested $849 million to reduce demand by 771 megawatts by 2020. CPS Energy met the goal in August, ahead of schedule and 15 percent under budget at around $723 million.

At the meeting, energy efficiency managers for school districts testified in favor of STEP’s extension, as did members of the solar industry. So did environmentalists, though they said San Antonio should use the program’s renewal to make big steps toward its 2030 goal of cutting carbon pollution by 41 percent of 2016 levels. 

The vote comes at a time of transition, what Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) and Mayor Ron Nirenberg described as a “mode shift” for the utility. CPS Energy opened its board meetings to public comment and live video streaming in 2019 and plans to implement more transparency measures in 2020. 

At Thursday’s council meeting, Gold-Williams expressed support for Nirenberg’s proposal for a first-ever advisory committee made up of appointed volunteers that will review the utility’s rate structure. CPS Energy has not raised its rates since 2013 but is considering whether it needs to do so in 2021.

“I agree about a rate advisory committee,” Gold-Williams told council members. “That’s helpful because we haven’t really looked at the structure of our rates in a really long time. … We’re not against talking about the generation mix and how it affects the bill.”

Greg Harman, a Sierra Club activist who’s part of what officials call the “environmental stakeholders group” that meets with the utility, said CPS Energy’s initiatives “are working for working families in San Antonio.”

“But we do want to see the ambition raised when we go to FlexSTEP,” Harman said.  

Brendan Gibbons is a former senior reporter at the San Antonio Report. He is an environmental journalist for Oil & Gas Watch.