CPS Energy has been owned by the City of San Antonio since 1942 and is the largest municipally owned energy utility in the nation. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

In 2040, CPS Energy will still be burning coal and natural gas – at least that’s what the utility’s top executives put in their presentation at their Tuesday board meeting.

CPS Energy officials unveiled the earliest version of their so-called Flexible Generation Plan, an early forecast of the municipally owned electrical and gas utility’s direction over the next 22 years as it transitions away from what CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams called a “build it and they will come” model.

“We’re keeping our powder dry,” Gold-Williams said. “We’ll be able to implement large-scale energy solutions if that’s the best economic decision for this community. However, we will also be able to think about scale and size in a way that we’ve never done before.”

Under the plan, CPS Energy’s power generation mix by 2040 would include 50 percent wind and solar, 13 percent natural gas, 9 percent nuclear, 7 percent coal, and 5 percent energy storage, potentially through massive batteries.

Another 16 percent would come from “flexible generation,” or what CPS Energy Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster explained as a sort of placeholder for new storage or generation technologies or those that become more efficient over the coming years.

Currently, its mix includes 45 percent natural gas, 22 percent wind and solar, 18 percent coal, and 14 percent nuclear.

Tuesday’s rollout blindsided many environmentalists in San Antonio, especially those who have been working on the City’s climate action plan. The 86 volunteers serving on the plan’s six committees met for the first time last week.

The numbers that CPS Energy officials showed on Tuesday refer to the total capacity of all the generation plants, solar farms, and wind farms the utility operates. It doesn’t show exactly how much of CPS Energy’s customers’ power came from what kind of fuel.

The Rivard Report asked CPS Energy officials for those numbers for 2017 on Tuesday but did not receive them before deadline.

CPS Energy has 804,000 electric and 343,000 gas customers in the San Antonio area and operates both as a power generator selling onto the grid and an electric utility supplying power to its customers.

Its Flexible Generation Plan came with some specific goals that have not been publicly revealed until now:

  • Shutting down its JK Spruce 1 coal-fired unit in 2030 instead of 2047.
  • Deciding not to spend money installing air pollution control measures on Spruce 1 meant to reduce ozone pollution.
  • Extending the life of its Arthur Von Rosenberg and Rio Nogales gas units for an additional eight years.
  • Adding 4,100 megawatts of renewables by 2040. CPS Energy currently has 1,600 megawatts.
  • Adding 550 megawatts of battery storage.

What isn’t clear is how all this fits into the official effort by the City, CPS Energy, and the University of Texas at San Antonio to deal with the causes and effects of climate change.

That process, known as the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, is just getting started. Some of those involved were surprised to see specific goals for CPS Energy’s future before they’ve had a chance to come up with a community-driven target for cutting greenhouse gas emissions.

“It’s just not a plan,” said Greg Harman, clean energy organizer with the Lone Star chapter of the Sierra Club. Under the proposal, “we’re still burning coal, burning gas, going with nuclear in the middle of a climate crisis,” he said.

Russell Seal, a retired pharmacist and member of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club who formerly served on an air quality advisory board for the Alamo Area Council of Governments, said he and others wanted to see the Spruce 1 coal-fired unit shut down “way before 2030.”

“I heard the word flexible; I’m staying positive on the word flexible,” he said.

Mayor Ron Nirenberg, whose first act after winning election last year was to push for San Antonio to sign an international agreement to help slow global warming, said he would prefer to see coal at zero by 2040.

“Do I want to do better than our projections? Absolutely,” Nirenberg said. “We’re going to be pushing to make that happen. The balance that’s required for this community is to ensure that we’re doing it in a way that continues to keep the power clean and affordable.”

At this point, the “price to beat” as CPS Energy compares power generation is combined-cycle natural gas, Eugster said.

“If we can get the same cost, a lower cost, the same level of reliability, that’s the technology we’re going to use,” he said.

Nirenberg, who sits on the CPS Energy board in his official capacity, said that City and CPS Energy officials over the next few months will talk about how to make it “economical” to cut more fossil fuels out of the utility’s mix.

He called the climate plan “the context for which we’re having all these discussions.”

“What you saw here today was CPS’ first pass at the strategic plan, given council commentary that they’ve gotten over the past few months,” Nirenberg said.

Eugster said the climate plan “is going to be a big part of how we think about the long-term carbon implications for our community.”

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