CPS Energy officials say they want to continue meeting and collaborating with a group of climate activists pushing a petition drive the utility says will bring catastrophe to the community. Activists say they also want to collaborate, if only CPS Energy would produce the data needed to get down to business.

Such is the current state of a standoff between a utility recognized as an environmental leader, owned by a City that has pledged to abandon fossil fuels by 2050, and a group of organizers and volunteers who want to see CPS Energy close its remaining coal-fired power plants long before then.

Interviews with activists and a series of letters obtained by the San Antonio Report shed more light on how negotiations broke down in recent weeks.

The Recall CPS coalition officially launched its petition drive in August. If the groups reach 20,000 signatures, a citywide vote in May 2021 could then determine whether to eliminate CPS Energy’s board and replace it with direct City Council oversight. The amendment also would require the closure of the Spruce coal plant by 2030 and for CPS Energy to divest itself entirely of fossil fuels by 2040. It would require the utility to put a price incentive on conservation so that the more power a customer uses, the more it costs, among other measures.

CPS Energy officials fear the charter amendment will only bring chaos and financial instability. In an Oct. 26 letter, CPS Energy Vice President Kathy Garcia asked that the coalition “consider withdrawing the petition effort, as we do not believe your colleagues, CPS Energy, San Antonio, and our shared goal of improving environmental stewardship are benefitted by pursuing adversarial paths.”

The letter acknowledged a proposed Nov. 12 meeting date of what CPS Energy calls its Environmental Stakeholders Group. That group has existed for a decade and meets with CPS Energy four times a year. Ostensibly, it’s a separate group from the Recall CPS coalition, though both groups have several overlapping members.

In the letter, Garcia suggested an additional two-hour meeting for a different date in November. CPS Energy would send three of its representatives, and the coalition could choose three people from its side.

On Oct. 28, the coalition responded with a list of five demands, signed by the Sierra Club’s Greg Harman, Public Citizen’s DeeDee Belmares, MOVE Texas’s Alex Birnel, and Texas Organizing Project’s Celia Valles. Aside from shutting down the Spruce plant, the demands included ending the utility’s policy of shutting off service for residents who owe payment and fall below a certain income threshold. It also called for “no rate increase until our utility rate structure is fair.”

A view from an access road at Calaveras Power Station of CPS Energy Spruce units.
A view from an access road of CPS Energy’s Spruce Power Plant in December 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

“To be clear, we can come to the table if and only if CPS Energy leadership is prepared to achieve energy reforms in the near term that are aligned with our five demands,” the Recall CPS letter states, adding that the two sides could “discuss and come to agreed timelines for these demands.”

Meanwhile, members of the Environmental Stakeholders Group were also deciding whether to meet on Nov. 12, as scheduled. On Nov. 6, Harman, who chairs the Environmental Stakeholders Group with Belmares and Southwest Workers Union’s Diana Lopez, sent an email stating that the stakeholders “have decided to pass on this round of conversations.”

Then, on Nov. 10, CPS Energy President and CEO Paula-Gold Williams responded with a five-page letter that called the Recall CPS letter “caustic.”

“In effect, you propose a one-way meeting instead of the conversation that we had hoped would include dialogue about continuing to care for our customers and transitioning our community towards cleaner energy,” Gold-Williams wrote.

Gold-Williams also expressed “disappointment” in the decision to cancel the Nov. 12 meeting, which she said had been confirmed since late September.

“We believe San Antonio and its citizens would be better served if we communicated openly and worked together to try to develop a mutual understanding that might result in your withdrawal of the petition effort, as the election you propose inevitably will be contentious and divisive,” Gold-Williams wrote.

Coal plant a critical issue

One of the main issues for closing Spruce 2 is that the unit is the youngest traditional power plant in CPS Energy’s portfolio. After an early history of dependence on natural gas and its volatile prices through much of the 20th century, CPS Energy decades ago began diversifying its generation sources.

The utility’s generation capacity is now 45 percent natural gas, 18 percent coal, 15 percent wind, 14 percent nuclear, 7 percent solar, and 1 percent natural gas drawn from landfills. Its Spruce 2 unit, first planned in the early 2000s, came online in 2010 and can feasibly run until the 2060s. Coal might be the utility’s most polluting power source, but it is reliable.

Gold-Williams has said that both sides agree on eventually arriving at carbon neutrality, but timing matters. The utility is moving as fast as it can without causing “rate shock” and “rolling blackouts,” she said.

“Factually, coal and natural gas plants directly support the reliability of power that our customers have come to expect, and this is one of our service priorities,” Gold-Williams wrote in the Nov. 10 letter. “We would not serve our customers or our community well if we prematurely adopted ‘green energy’ mandates, which in California have contributed to rolling blackouts during high-demand periods.”

CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams
CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams in October 2018. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Still, CPS Energy has a strong record of investments in renewables. The utility is the leader in wind energy in the U.S. and has the most solar capacity in city limits of any in Texas. Its energy effiency and solar programs known as the Save For Tomorrow Energy Plan won a national award from the American Public Power Association.

Many of the activists acknowledge the utility’s environmental performance. But they still point to a lack of a solid plan to move entirely away from fossil fuels by 2050, as called for under the international Paris Agreement to limit the worst effects of global climate change.

“It’s an award-winning utility, I just question the rubric for the time we’re in,” said Alex Birnel, advocacy manager with youth progressive organizing group MOVE Texas, one of the Recall CPS groups.

Birnel went on to call the petition drive “a typical fight that young people find themselves in across the country, and San Antonio here is no different.”

“It acknowledges that the fires in California and the floods in Houston are atrocious, and that greenhouse gases being in the air make most extreme weather events more frequent and severe,” Birnel said. “The carbon budget of the city, so much of it is represented by the coal plant. If this is a means and a method to close the coal plant, we’re in, and we’re willing to collect signatures.”

Alex Birnel, MOVE Texas advocacy manager, in November 2019. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

Gold-Williams has described activists’ motivations as “specifically based upon an ideology.”

“While you and your group have the luxury of making narrowly focused demands regarding CPS Energy’s priorities and actions, CPS Energy must have broader civic responsibility and guiding principles to best serve all of our customers and the community,” Gold-Williams wrote in her Nov. 10 letter.

Communication breakdown in stakeholder group

Since that letter, Gold-Williams has said multiple times this week that activists are “not really talking to us right now.”

“We’ve invited them on multiple occasions to talk to us, and they’re choosing not to do that right now,” Gold-Williams said at the utility’s November board meeting Monday.

Activists thinks CPS Energy officials used Harman’s email about the stakeholders group as an excuse to avoid meeting with the Recall CPS coalition to discuss the list of demands.

“In my opinion, we canceled one meeting, which they are conflating with god-knows-what,” Harman told the San Antonio Report.

In a phone interview this week, Harman said the Environmental Stakeholders Group and the Recall CPS petitioners are two different groups with different priorities, though he acknowledged that it can be easy to conflate them because of overlapping members.

“The stakeholders are a much broader coalition of interests and individuals, many of whom haven’t stepped near the petition,” Harman said.

Belmares, a leader of both groups, said in an interview this week that “we never said we would not meet” with CPS Energy to discuss the petition.

“I think if they had said, ‘Yes, we’re willing to discuss this and work on plans and timelines for them,’ we definitely would have met,” Belmares said. “We wouldn’t say no if they were really committed to working with us.”

Belmares went on to describe the erosion of trust in the relationship after many years activists and volunteers meeting behind closed doors with utility officials through the Environmental Stakeholders Group.

“I think it’s almost 10 years that the environmental stakeholders have been meeting with CPS Energy,” Belmares said. Those meetings have covered the fate of the Spruce coal plant, the utility’s rate structure, and how to set up a community-driven process to plan for new power generators, she said.

“We’ve had plenty of conversations, but they haven’t resulted in any clear plans from CPS Energy to address our issues,” Belmares said. “Our meetings, our discussions have been fruitless.”

That’s the message that Mario Bravo, a former chair of the Environmental Stakeholders Group, also sent when he resigned in January, more than nine months before other activists launched the petition drive, which he did not help organize.

“I didn’t want [Gold-Williams] to continue to use to me to say that they were engaging with the public and that they were having meaningful conversations and that they were taking our input,” Bravo said of his resignation. “None of that was happening.”

Mario Bravo in January 2020. Credit: Scott Ball / San Antonio Report

Bravo, a project manager with Environmental Defense Fund, chaired the group for two years. Citing an example of the inertia in his resignation letter, he said CPS Energy consistently avoided providing any financial assumptions and modeling that could be used to explore an early retirement of Spruce.

Despite multiple requests from activists and news media over the past three years, the utility has not presented a menu of different energy paths to the community and details about how each path might affect its customers’ bills.

The closest it has come is a recent slide that shows the current average bill for CPS Energy residential customers, compared to an average bill that factors in “triple spending on conservation plus accelerating coal unit retirements.” The slide shows a $141.24 average monthly CPS Energy bill swelling to $160.

A CPS Energy slide is meant to show the effect on monthly bills of tripling conservation spending and closing remaining coal units.
A CPS Energy slide is meant to show the effect on monthly bills of tripling conservation spending and closing remaining coal units. Credit: Courtesy / CPS Energy

Asked in follow-up interviews about what year was being assumed for coal unit retirements in that slide, utility officials did not provide answers.

Disclosure: CPS Energy is a San Antonio Report business member. DeeDee Belmares, of Public Citizen, and Alex Birnel, of MOVE Texas, sit on the San Antonio Repot’s board of community advisors.

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