A fragment of coal that was below a conveyor belt at the Deely plant.
A fragment of coal that was below a conveyor belt at the Deely plant. CPS Energy Calaveras Power Station hosts the Deely and Spruce coal power plants. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

In April 2018, the union representing San Antonio’s firefighters formally filed petitions calling for referenda on changes to the municipal charter. Utilizing private companies to circulate petitions, the union collected over 100,000 signatures in the span of a few months. It was a bold move by the union to wrest control of power from City Hall, including capping the City Manager’s salary. Despite a well-funded campaign by the business community in opposition, two of the three union-supported measures passed. 

The firefighters’ union discovered that Texas law oddly makes it easier for citizen activists to change the founding “constitutions” of municipalities than to repeal an ordinance. The Texas Local Government Code only requires 20,000 petitioners to force a vote on a charter change. Whereas, the San Antonio City Charter requires 10 percent of the qualified voters of San Antonio to petition for a voter-pushed election (that’s 96,462 required petitioners). At City Hall, that realization was widely seen as a harbinger of troubling things to come. 

Now, there is a new assault on San Antonio’s charter. This time, it comes from the environmental community. The Recall CPS petition launched by the Save Our Power Political Action Committee seeks to mandate the elimination of all coal-generated electricity by 2030 and all other fossil fuel generation by 2040. It also seeks to require CPS Energy customers to pay extra if they use “more” electricity than others. The environmental community, however, is not widely promoting these aspects of the charter petition. Taking lessons from the firefighters’ charter campaign, advocates are ostensibly appealing to populism in the community to seize control at City Hall, and yes, reduce the salary of the CPS Energy’s Chief Executive Officer, Paula Gold-Williams. 

However, the real goal of the petition effort is to simply wrest control of decision making from the community-owned and managed utility. Since being purchased by the City of San Antonio in 1942, CPS Energy has been an independent agency, governed by a small, business-like board of trustees appointed by the City Council. Environmentalists want CPS Energy to be disbanded, and instead want the utility to be an operating department within the City. 

I doubt anyone asked the City Manager and City Council whether they would want to add oversight of the nation’s largest municipal gas and electrical utility to their already crushing workload of policy matters, land use disputes, and constituent services. 

Of course, it is not stated – but understood – that the utility policies and operations would become subject to increased political pressure. Indeed, the petition calls for an appointed citizens advisory commission with broad input over almost every aspect of the utility. 

Petition advocates point to Austin Energy as the model for the charter change but fail in answering why Austin Energy would be a better way of doing business. After all, few in Austin would claim that its utility is better than CPS Energy. In fact, San Antonio’s average residential electricity bill is the lowest of the 10 largest U.S. cities. Even more impressive is that, despite Austin’s reputation as environmentally-friendly, CPS Energy bests Austin Energy in renewable energy, and may soon lead the entire nation in solar energy generation through its FlexPOWER Bundle initiative. A recent Bexar Facts poll shows that CPS Energy is well-respected by customers here, as well as utilities across the nation.

In contrast, the Austin model has historically been contentious and frustrated. In 2015, Austin Energy’s citizens advisory board, its “Electric Utility Commission,” unanimously recommended that the utility be governed by an independent board (like CPS Energy) so that political influence at City Council could be reduced and the finances of the utility improved. Given this history, it is not clear why San Antonio would want to emulate Austin.  So then, what is this all about? 

The charter petition is really an attempt to force a very specific agenda on the utility and at City Hall. Despite community support for climate change goals, both City Council and CPS Energy Board of Trustees have approached things cautiously and with a balanced look at customers’ wallets.

Decision-makers understand that CPS Energy is huge and does not change easily. Today, the utility owns over $11 billion in total assets. Most of its generation plants (63 percent of total capacity) are comprised of coal and natural gas plants. CPS Energy generates so much power that it sells excess electricity across Texas through the ERCOT grid system.

Any reasonable analysis concludes that arbitrarily shutting down these generation plants would be unrealistic, impractical, and expensive for San Antonio customers. Not addressed by the petition is where San Antonio would get its electricity if it shut down most of its powerplants in the next 20 years, or how much all that electricity would cost to buy. 

In response to the City’s Climate Action & Adaptation Plan, CPS Energy answered with its own “Flexible Path,” which reasonably holds that changes in technology, customer demand, and federal policies should drive long-term future decisions about generation – not arbitrary deadlines. However, environmentalists are unimpressed with Flexible Path, frustrated by the lack of deadlines, and undeterred by the financial realities facing CPS Energy and its customers.

Should the petition process succeed, San Antonio voters would see the measure on the May 2021 ballot along with mayoral and city council elections. This will undoubtedly spark a fierce debate and campaign in the community about the importance and future of this community’s public utility. However, voters should first know that this petition is not really about electricity – it’s about raw political power.

Trey Jacobson is the former Chief of Staff to Mayor Ron Nirenberg. He is now the principal consultant with Momentum Advisory Services.