A view from an access road at Calaveras Power Station of CPS Energy Spruce units.
The petition drive, in addition to altering CPS Energy's management structure, sought to eliminate its use of coal by 2030 and end all fossil fuel use by 2040. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Recall CPS’ petition drive against CPS Energy, the nation’s largest municipal energy utility, came to an anticlimactic end last week. Its two key elements – accelerating the timeline for shutting down the utility’s remaining coal plants and ending its independent governance and management structure – failed to garner the necessary support.

Despite the pandemic, voters turned out in record numbers for the November presidential election, giving organizers ample opportunity to campaign. But citizens approached to sign the petitions and place the matter on the City’s May election ballot were unpersuaded, and the drive to collect 20,000 signatures fell short by 6,000.

Many who declined to sign the petition likely have serious concerns about climate change as well as the utility’s oft-criticized lack of transparency, but too few were convinced the proposed alternatives were a better choice than the status quo.

The Recall CPS coalition – made up mainly of Public Citizen, Southwest Workers Union, MOVE Texas, Texas Rising, Texas Organizing Project, and the local chapter of the Sierra Club – grew out of activism around San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan adopted by City Council in 2019. That original plan was opposed inside CPS Energy and officials lobbied City staff and elected officials to modify it. Trustees later approved a resolution “expressing support” for the City’s plan.

That plan calls for San Antonio to be carbon-neutral by 2050, which cannot be done while generating power with coal and relying on fossil fuels to power ground and air transportation. The plan, a priority for Mayor Ron Nirenberg and City Council, was strongly opposed by the business community and the final version was a watered-down compromise that contained no real road map for achieving what amount now to aspirational goals.

Recall CPS activists wanted an even more aggressive commitment, with all coal plants shuttered by 2030.

On the governance side, many people question the structure of the CPS Energy board, which, in effect, is self-perpetuating, its members recruited by business and elected leaders and appointed by sitting trustees rather than elected by voters in representative elections. CEO Paula Gold-Williams in a good year can now earn three times as much as the San Antonio city manager, her annual compensation package approaching $1 million when all bonuses are achieved and perks tallied.

While both the board and the CEO compensation make easy targets, no evidence suggests that selecting trustees by, say, elected single-member districts, would lead to better governance. The decision by voters to cap city manager pay, an issue forced by the firefighters union petition drive in 2019, means San Antonio is no longer nationally competitive and must promote from within its ranks. That’s not intended as a criticism of City Manager Erik Walsh, but the fact is City Council had limited options.

Why would allowing voters to arbitrarily set executive compensation make CPS Energy better managed and responsive to ratepayers?

The challenge, of course, is how to improve CPS Energy without destroying CPS Energy, which ranks nationally on all fronts: reliability, affordability, and the continuing diversification of its energy sources. That probably will only happen through patient, systematic give and take by people working within the system. That’s how a citizens rate advisory committee was established in 2020.

Government reform by petition offers simplistic remedies for complex problems. Activists play an important role in focusing public attention on issues of importance. They are right to push for urgent action to address climate change, however many doubters or deniers believe otherwise. The vast majority of scientists agree the evidence is clear. We cannot continue on our present course if we are going to give future generations a planet they can safely inhabit.

That said, in my experience activists seldom provide workable solutions. Unintended consequences are a more likely outcome. Tackling complex problems requires expertise, lots of groundwork and investment, and ultimately, political compromise. It doesn’t happen by petition. The quality of the people voters elect and that are hired to govern ultimately determines whether society moves forward and the economy grows.

And for job creation and the economy to grow, we need capitalism. The private sector is where most problems are solved, whether it’s the development of electric vehicles, energy-saving buildings, or the race to create safe vaccines.

Activists wanted the utility to become another department of City government falling under the purview of the city manager. The City currently receives 14 percent of all CPS gas and electric customer revenues, which totaled $354 million in the fiscal year 2020 budget, about one-third of general fund revenue. Property taxes and sales taxes account for most of the remaining balance. The City could not operate at current levels of service without that revenue, and it would be unable to service the levels of debt that allow major bond cycles to be planned and executed every five years.

There is no evidence that the City could outperform CPS Energy on revenue generation. San Antonio’s model has been widely admired in Texas and beyond. Ratepayers in other cities and states face brownouts, higher energy costs, and in the case of some merchant utilities, underinvestment in safety and systems that can have devastating consequences, like the historic wildfires caused by Pacific Gas & Electric in Northern California in 2019.

Many local activists see Austin Energy, the City of Austin’s energy utility, as a better model. I’ve never seen convincing evidence that would justify dismantling CPS Energy and adopting that city-managed utility model. Austin certainly has not adopted a 2030 deadline for shutting down fossil fuel-generated energy.

Our coverage of the failed petition drive last week drew relatively low readership, which surprised me. I understand half the city is trying to get an appointment for vaccines, but San Antonio averted a political and economic disaster last week, however well-intentioned activists might be.

All sides should recognize the importance of finding less confrontational ways to make our way forward together. And we do need to move forward if we care about the planet and our future.

Clarification: An earlier version of this column stated that CPS Energy did not formally adopt the City’s 2019 Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Trustees did pass a resolution “expressing support” for the plan after it was modified.

Robert Rivard

Robert Rivard is co-founder and columnist at the San Antonio Report.