With higher bills likely ahead for CPS Energy ratepayers, San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg is calling for the utility to restructure its rates with input from an outside committee that would include customers. 

In a memo circulated to City Council members Friday, Nirenberg called for a rate advisory committee to “review the design of the utility’s current and future rate structure and fees.” CPS Energy officials have hinted over the past two years that the first rate hike since 2013 is on the horizon, though the utility has managed so far to stave off the need to raise rates. 

Read Nirenberg’s memo here.

In a phone interview, Nirenberg said the committee would be focused on the overall rate structure and the “big picture.” CPS Energy’s board would need to approve the creation of such a committee, Nirenberg said.

“We have to have the discussion at the board, but my conversations with staff have been productive and positive,” Nirenberg said. “And as I’ve discussed this with colleagues generally, there seems to be acknowledgement of an increasing need for public engagement and a desire to address some of these big policy issues. So I’m encouraged.” 

The memo reflects Nirenberg’s push for more transparency at CPS Energy, which has faced some criticism for operating less openly than its sister utility, the San Antonio Water System, and other local government entities. Last year, CPS Energy began allowing public comments at its regular board meetings for the first time, streaming those meeting on live video, and posting more meeting materials online. 

In an emailed statement Friday, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula Gold-Williams confirmed she had spoken with Nirenberg and said she looks “forward to working with CPS Energy’s full Board of Trustees on this new engagement opportunity.”

Gold-Williams said that CPS Energy has had a formal Citizens Advisory Committee in place for 22 years and frequently receives input from its customers through events like its “customer care fairs.” The utility also regularly meets with environmentalists, representatives of the solar industry, neighborhood groups, and business chambers, among others, she said. 

“I believe the new committee the mayor has proposed can be a very good addition to our vast network of community connections,” Gold-Williams said.

SAWS’ own Rate Advisory Committee – made up of representatives of residential, business, and other customer types – has been meeting since September to work on restructuring that utility’s water and sewer rates. At its most recent meeting Jan. 14, the SAWS committee heard details about how much it costs SAWS to provide service to each customer class. 

Nirenberg’s memo called for the CPS Energy committee to be divided into a “technical working group” and a “stakeholder engagement group.” The stakeholder group would include a representative from each council district, it stated. Nirenberg thinks the overall committee should include 15 to 20 members.

The committee would be responsible for reviewing that utility’s sources of power “as well as engaging, informing, and answering questions put forth by the community at large.” Nirenberg also has pushed for the utility to speed up its transition away from fossil fuels to meet the goals of the City’s climate plan.
CPS Energy has nearly 3,400 megawatts of natural gas generation and 1,350 megawatts of coal capacity, compared to capacity of just over 1,000 megawatts of wind and nearly 550 megawatts of large-scale solar. It also has about 1,035 megawatts of nuclear power. One megawatt can power about 200 homes on a Texas summer day.

CPS Energy currently charges residential customers a $8.75 monthly fixed charge and 6.9 cents per kilowatt-hour (kwh), plus an extra 1.9 cents per kwh for usage over 600 kwh during the high-demand months of June through September. 

Commercial rates are more complicated. Business customers pay CPS Enegy the same $8.75 fixed charge, plus 7.2 cents per kwh for the first 1,600 kwh. After tha the price drops to 3.3 cents per kwh. From June through September, CPS Energy adds a charge of nearly 2 cents per kwh for usage over 600 kwh. From October to May, that extra charge drops to 1 cent per kwh. 

“I don’t see the current rate structure as playing any role in implementing the overall board policies with regard to generation planning and the pillars of resiliency, sustainability, and customer affordability,” Nirenberg said. “We’ve become an organization with much more complex issues, and this conversation and engagement is now critical.” 

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