(From left) Paula Gold-Williams, CPS Energy president and CEO; Anita Ledbetter, CEO of BuildSA Green; Chrissy Mann, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign; Patrick Attwater, One80 Solar president and CEO; and moderator Brendan Gibbons, Rivard Report environmental reporter, participate in the Coal & the Climate panel discussion. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

While the head of San Antonio’s public energy utility stressed Wednesday that replacing fossil fuels with renewable energy sources would be expensive, local climate action advocates and renewable energy experts maintained the move would not only save on future costs, but also mitigate the looming effects of climate change.

CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams joined Patrick Attwater, One80 Solar president and CEO; Chrissy Mann, senior campaign representative for the Sierra Club Beyond Coal campaign; and Anita Ledbetter, CEO of BuildSA Green, at Weathered Souls Brewing Co. in discussing coal and its role as an energy source for San Antonio as policymakers and scientists grapple with climate change policies. The panel discussion hosted Wednesday by the Rivard Report was moderated by environmental reporter Brendan Gibbons.

CPS Energy could potentially go in nine different directions in the future, Gold-Williams said. But before the public utility can tackle those plans, it needs to finalize its assumptions – or foundational facts such as projected population size or electricity demand – on which to build a plan. CPS Energy has no intention of building another coal-fueled power plant, she added.

“We want to take 2019 to look at assumptions, put the model out there,” Gold-Williams said. “We want everybody to see the model, not just the team that really has the analytics and can do it. We’re going to put it out the public to see what assumptions we made and ultimately what the model tells us.”

Gold-Williams also said CPS Energy has not yet analyzed economic implications of any of its potential plans, but said the utility would share the potential costs once they’ve been calculated. Those plans include moving completely to renewable energy by 2030 or by 2050, respectively, as well as relying on nuclear power, a non-emitting energy source. But all plans must consider affordability, she said.

“It’s like a home,” Gold-Williams said. “You move into a home, you’ve been there for 10 years. You say, ‘I don’t like it. I want a new home.’ So you go get a new home. You still owe the debt on the first home. You gotta find someone who wants the home you don’t want anymore, or close it down and pay two mortgages.”

Mann countered that there was not enough time to consider longer-term plans, such as following CPS Energy’s current Flexible Path plan. That plan led to the closure of the Deely coal plant on New Year’s Eve, and projects renewable energy sources to make up half of its generating capacity by 2040 while still burning natural gas. The plan is less forceful than the City’s recently drafted Climate Action and Adaptation Plan (CAAP), which calls for San Antonio to be completely carbon-neutral by 2050. City Council is slated to vote on the CAAP in May.

A conveyor belt that moved coal through the Deely plant.
A conveyor belt that moved coal through the Deely plant. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Mann cited an October 2018 report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change that found global warming would hit 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels between 2030 and 2052 if temperatures continued to rise at the same rate. That would result in sea levels rising and more extreme weather, among other things.

“It basically said if we don’t act quickly and aggressively, we’re screwed,” Mann said. “With respect to that, the specific dates in there that some of the recommendations point to is that we need to have peaked in 2030 for greenhouse gas emissions. And the easiest way to take a big chunk of greenhouse gas emissions out of San Antonio’s inventory is to go to the biggest polluter in San Antonio and Bexar County, and that’s CPS Energy.”

Attwater, who founded local company One80 Solar, said many of his clients don’t even consider the impact on climate change when they choose to go solar — they see it as a way to generate their own power.

“It’s about saving money,” he said. “It takes four to six years to pay back, then you have free power.”

Ledbetter leads BuildSA Green, an organization devoted to helping people devise ways to build for a more energy-efficient lifestyle – including how to go solar – for free. The voluntary program helps with rebates and design, and home builders and commercial developers alike see the benefit of lowering energy bills for their customers, she said.

“I think we have 1,900 projects under construction today, and the results are great,” Ledbetter said. “We’ve reduced demand 11.8 megawatts at peak demand reduction, and 190 pounds of CO2. That’s like taking 16,000 cars off the road every year.”

Advanced Solar workers install solar panels on Allison Carrazco's roof.
Workers install solar panels on the roof of a home on the East Side. Credit: Kathryn Boyd-Batstone / San Antonio Report

Gold-Williams added that CPS Energy offering incentives for installing solar panels has aided in that energy form’s success. The utility pledged $849 million toward its Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan, which offers a rebate of 60 cents per watt of installed solar capacity.

“It’s a community investment to change and support change in technology,” she said. “The complication is that not everybody can put a solar panel on their home or even has an interest in it.”

Gold-Williams said CPS Energy “can and will” invest in solar, but much of the challenge that comes with solar power is ensuring that it’s as reliable as a fossil-fueled source. She also announced that the utility will soon launch a solar power stakeholder group to discuss such challenges.

Missed the talk? Watch the discussion in full here.

Jackie Wang

Jackie Wang is the local government reporter at the San Antonio Report.