CPS Energy's Calaveras Power Station includes the J.K. Spruce coal plant.
CPS Energy's Calaveras Power Station includes the J.K. Spruce coal plant. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Frustrated by what they see as a lack of firm commitments to close fossil fuel plants, environmental and social justice activists have launched a petition drive seeking the elimination of CPS Energy’s board of trustees, among other reforms.

The Recall CPS petition launched by the Save Our Power Political Action Committee is aimed at asking voters next year to approve a City charter amendment that would replace the municipally owned electric and gas utility’s board with direct oversight by City Council. The charter amendment, if passed, also would require the utility to remove coal from its generation mix by 2030 and divest entirely from fossil fuels by 2040.

The charter amendment is meant to “decapitate” the utility’s leadership structure, while leaving its underlying operations intact, said Darby Riley, a volunteer with the Sierra Club’s Alamo Group, during an Aug. 18 videoconference.

“[CPS Energy] runs like a private company with virtually no public oversight,” Riley said. “If the City Council wants to regulate [it], they can, but they don’t. So they basically just do what they want to do” at the utility.

During a videoconference Tuesday with activists, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams said utility officials have been listening to environmentalists’ input. She pointed to CPS Energy’s status as a leader in wind and solar energy among other large utilities of its kind. In July, it issued a global request for information on new energy projects that include 900 megawatts of solar and 50 megawatts of battery storage.

“We do have a major focus on the environment,” Gold-Williams said. “It is one of our six primary pillars. And increasingly, we are finding ways to improve.”

Tensions between activists and the utility have been elevated since 2018, when CPS Energy officials announced a vision for the future of San Antonio’s power. The announcement came while San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan was still being developed.

CPS Energy’s plan, known as the Flexible Path, calls for half of the utility’s generating capacity by 2042 to come from renewables. But the plan also called for maintaining its Spruce 2 coal unit, completed in 2010, whose useful life officials say extends into the 2060s.

Many environmentalists have been pushing for financial modeling on what effect closing Spruce would have on CPS Energy’s customers’ bills.

During Tuesday’s videoconference, DeeDee Belmares, a San Antonio-based climate justice organizer with Public Citizen, asked whether CPS Energy officials would share such data “so that we, not just the environmental community, but the San Antonio community in general, can understand the feasibility of a 2025 or 2030 shutdown.”

Gold-Williams responded that CPS Energy did not study those scenarios closely, focusing instead on closing older natural gas power plants that will be ending their useful lives in the 2030s.

“The challenge is we have such older units,” Gold-Williams said. “For us, the sequence and prioritization is important.”

One frustration for activists has been the tendency of the utility’s lawyers to block open records requests by citing exemptions for public utilities. One exemption is for information that might give competitors an advantage on the Texas wholesale electricity market.

Chrissy Mann, an Austin-based senior representative of the Sierra Club’s Beyond Coal campaign, said she and her allies want to get “actual prices and progress.”

“We don’t seem to move the ball, hence the charter amendment,” Mann told the San Antonio Report.

The petition calls for City Council to take the place of the current five-member CPS Energy board of trustees, which appoints its own replacement members, subject to City Council confirmation votes. Each trustee represents a quadrant of San Antonio, along with the mayor, who serves in an ex-officio capacity. The amendment would do away with that structure and replace it with the mayor and City Council serving as the utility’s board.

The amendment also would set up a commission made up of members appointed by each council district, along with one member to represent customers outside city limits. It would function in an advisory role, meeting monthly to review all aspects of the utility and reporting back to the Council.

The amendment also would require CPS Energy to restructure its rates to an inclining scale so that the more power a customer uses, the more it costs per kilowatt-hour.

The petition echoes another petition drive launched in February targeting the San Antonio Water System. Though the two appear similar on the surface, they have different goals and coalitions behind them. The SAWS amendments focus on ratcheting back the SAWS CEO’s pay, requiring auditing for major projects, and enforcing existing term limits on the SAWS board.

The Alamo Group of the Sierra Club is the main connecting thread, with several members involved in both petitions. The petitions also have the backing of Texas Organizing Project, a nonprofit focused on organizing Black and Latino communities in Texas cities. TOP was influential in a 2018 petition drive to place a paid sick leave ordinance before San Antonio voters. It garnered nearly 150,000 signatures.

Organizers for both utility petitions would have to get 20,000 signatures this year to place their reforms on the May 2021 ballot.

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Brendan Gibbons

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