In April of 2019, CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams submitted a letter to the City of San Antonio commenting on its draft climate plan, stating, “CPS Energy has already embraced the transition from traditional fuel sources to renewable energy.” The following year, the utility’s board of trustees voted unanimously on a resolution in support of that climate plan, which lists reducing the carbon intensity of our energy supply as its top strategy.
Despite these endorsements of cleaner energy and the need to reduce emissions, CPS Energy’s actions continue to tell another story. If the utility is serious about addressing the climate crisis and its impacts on San Antonio, it needs to rethink its investments in fossil fuels and redouble its efforts to cut emissions.
During a presentation to City Council in 2018, Gold-Williams stated that CPS Energy’s natural gas distribution system presents an opportunity for business growth – and the utility appears intent on staying the course with fossil fuels.
At last September’s board meeting, as a preview of an item to be voted on at a future meeting, staff proposed investing $121 million over the next three years to build out gas infrastructure that customers will be saddled with for the better part of a century. Meanwhile, CPS Energy continues to incentivize use of natural gas by offering rebates to convert electric stoves or water heaters to natural gas-powered appliances. Over the last four years, CPS Energy has given out over a half million dollars in rebates to effectively subsidize the use of natural gas appliances and increase fossil fuel use.
In addition to being at odds with its stated climate goals, these new fossil fuel investments present a puzzling business case for the city’s utility – something it might already realize. Recently, CPS Energy proposed a new electricity generation plan that includes a 5-10-year lease of an existing natural gas plant. After receiving pushback from the community, CPS modified their proposed generation plan, creating an open-source request for proposals to see what the market will propose to meet CPS Energy’s energy generation needs. In the past, it might have built a new gas plant outright, but a 50-60-year commitment to that expensive asset is too risky today given the fast-evolving energy generation and storage landscape and new climate realities.
CPS Energy should apply this same thinking to its plans to build out its natural gas distribution network, else it risks exposing the utility and its customers to new liabilities of under-collecting or even needlessly stranding infrastructure. If CPS Energy continues to operate under a business-as-usual paradigm, this will mean investment in projects and programs costing billions of dollars and asking ratepayers to pay for large amounts of infrastructure based on a useful life of 60 years or longer.
As Texas eventually takes steps to decrease greenhouse gas emissions, gas infrastructure once deemed to be useful may no longer be needed as non-pipeline alternatives are further deployed. If utilities face a declining customer base, the already committed investments and costs of operation and maintenance are spread over fewer customers. This would mean an increase in gas rates for the remaining customers, who may not be able to make the up-front investments required to electrify but are most affected by higher utility bills.
In addition, CPS Energy has failed to show that it is using best practices to reduce gas leaks from the infrastructure it already manages. In March 2018, CPS Energy held a press conference to debut “Gaston,” a natural gas advanced leak detection vehicle that not only creates a map of gas leak locations but also determines the size of each leak to help prioritize fixing the largest ones first.
CPS Energy spent over $1 million on this technology. However, in a private meeting that I had with CPS Energy’s natural gas team eight months after debuting Gaston, they disclosed that they had not hired a driver for the vehicle – or even listed a job opening for one. Gaston had only been used in test trials, but staff regularly paraded the vehicle out at public events around town for publicity purposes. It has now been over two and a half years since CPS Energy debuted its leak detection vehicle and they have yet to publish any meaningful data regarding its performance.
This technology can be used to improve leak management practices, prioritize pipeline replacement and track system-wide methane emissions. Now that CPS Energy has taken the first step of purchasing the technology, it should deploy it in such a way that brings about cost, safety and environmental benefits.
As a next step, CPS Energy should publish the number of leaks it has discovered and consider deploying a “Super Emitter Program.” These types of programs are effective in reducing leak volume rate by targeting a small number of leaks that are usually responsible for a significant proportion of emissions.
Finally, as long as CPS Energy continues to purchase natural gas, they must take steps to maximize methane reductions.
Almost three-fourths of CPS Energy’s natural gas is sourced from the Permian Basin, a field that recent scientific studies found to have the highest gas emissions in the nation. This leaked gas in the form of methane is a powerful climate warmer, trapping over 80 times as much heat as carbon dioxide.
In addition to purchasing natural gas from the highest-emitting oil and gas field in the country, CPS Energy opted to pass when given opportunities to support policies to reduce oilfield emissions from places like the Permian.
As the Trump administration rolled back safeguards to cut pollution from natural gas production, even oil and gas giants ExxonMobil, BP and Shell publicly opposed those rollbacks. And while CPS Energy had joined a collaborative of natural gas purchasers with a mission of promoting safe and responsible practices for natural gas supply, it declined to sign on to the group’s letter stating “federal methane regulations for the oil and gas industry are important for minimizing methane emissions to address climate change and protect public health.”
Despite CEO Paula Gold Williams’ claims, CPS Energy has done a poor job of transitioning away from fossil fuels and proactively reducing emissions. Under her leadership, CPS Energy has a lot of work to do to ensure its actions measure up to its commitments to address the climate crisis and ensure San Antonio is positioned to lead in a low-carbon future.