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San Antonio is an amazing place. We can have a nine-day winter that starts on a Thursday, includes a fierce blizzard causing a shutdown of streets, the bus system, and mail delivery and causes massive power outages and water shortages for days. And nearly busts the entire statewide electricity grid while killing at least 32 Texans.

Then, on the 10th day, a Saturday, spring arrives. The city’s golf courses open and fill up. Outdoor dining is back. Enjoy it. Nature’s clock is running. In six weeks, merciless summer begins.

What we can’t enjoy this brief spring is contemplating the outrageous bill for the limited electricity we received last week. 

The good news is that we won’t be getting electric bills like some already calculated in Dallas, Houston, and most of the state. 

The Washington Post gave the example of David Astrein, who together with his wife and their baby suffered two outages and worked to conserve energy. He logged on to his power provider’s website one day last week and learned that since Feb. 1 he had racked up $2,796.85 in charges.

The Dallas Morning News reported customers being charged as much as $17,000 for a few days of power.

Offered dozens of different power companies in those deregulated markets, these customers had chosen the equivalent of a variable-rate mortgage – low costs in the beginning, but with rates tied to the price of fuel, mostly natural gas.

When the deep freeze hit, demand for electricity soared like during heat waves in the summer, but the supply was decimated as generation plants of all sorts froze up. The huge wind turbines iced. Solar panels were covered with ice and snow, further reducing what the shorter winter days allow. Coal and even nuclear plants saw production reductions.

But most importantly, pipes for natural gas, which after years of low prices provides most of Texas’s electric power, froze. With higher demand and diminished supply, the Public Utility Commission of Texas authorized electricity wholesalers to astronomically increase their prices in order to be able to buy natural gas.

Having been charging about $500 per megawatt hour, they were authorized to charge retailers up to $9,000 per megawatt hour. 

Here’s the bad news: San Antonio’s CPS Energy had to pay those skyrocketing wholesale rates for outside electricity when its generators of all types – wind, solar, coal, nuclear and natural gas – all suffered production woes. CPS Energy is busy calculating how many millions it had to pay to keep from totally shutting down and should tell us within two weeks. 

We San Antonians are in a special position. We are not only customers of CPS Energy, we are also its owners. So while the municipally owned utility’s officials hope to receive federal and state aid to cover some of the costs, we are going to end up paying the bulk of the bill. CPS Energy officials say they hope to spread out the cost, possibly over a period of years, rather than to send out bills that many of their customers would have no way of paying. 

But as Joe Biden would say, here’s the thing. It’s likely to be only a down payment. 

Having largely ignored the recommendations of federal authorities to winterize our electric generators after a similar but less drastic winter storm in 2011, everybody from Gov. Greg Abbott to CPS Energy CEO Paula Gold-Williams now says we need to do it. That will not be cheap, but there is much more to do.

Even at a micro level, climate economics are complicated. That fact came to mind earlier in the month when CPS Energy finally released its study on the economics of shutting down its two coal-fired electricity generating plants. 

One of the two Spruce plants had been scheduled to burn coal into the 2060s. Coal plants are the most polluting of electrical generators, with emissions ranging from health-endangering particulates to gases blamed for smog and global warming. What’s more, their cost advantages have been challenged by low natural gas prices and, increasingly, cheaper renewables.

According to the CPS Energy study, to shut them down aggressively and replace them with wind, sun, and batteries would cost the average residential customer an additional $12 a month over a 15-year period, after which the additional costs would diminish. (To read Brendan Gibbons’ clearly written coverage of the study for the San Antonio Report, click here.) A major part of the cost is repaying the $1.78 billion still owed for construction of the coal plants.

But the economic study doesn’t address the full costs of continuing to burn coal, costs related to its status as the energy industry’s worst contributor to climate change.

Scientists are divided on whether climate change contributed to the recent winter storms, but even major oil companies have quit disputing that carbon emissions are causing global warming with serious economic costs. 

Locally the most obvious may be air conditioning costs as the average temperature and the average number of days above 100 degrees rise at increasing rates. The number of 100-degree-plus days  per decade in San Antonio rose from 271 days in the 1970s to 669 days in the 2010s according to a story on long-term warming by Gibbons in the San Antonio Report last year. 

CPS Energy will need to spend considerable money to meet increasing summer demands. But as our utility company continues to spew heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the damage they cause is beyond their scope.

Scientists attribute, without much controversy, much more to climate change. Our droughts are longer, our floods more severe. Our hurricanes are stronger and more frequent. The oceans are rising as the polar caps melt. Local species will move north or die out and invasive species will move in as average temperatures continue to rise. Coastal cities all over the world are flooding more frequently. The Pentagon predicts some of its bases will be under water. South Texas’s agricultural output is expected to be diminished. 

The economic costs of these consequences will be huge, and they can’t be covered by local utilities. For one thing, there’s no precise way to measure their contribution. The costs, like the consequences, are necessarily going to be spread out.

But some contributions can be pinpointed, and among those are the effects of burning fossil fuels. That’s why a carbon tax makes sense. It assigns costs to one of the major contributors to the problem. That would make the price of using fossil fuels more closely track the real costs they incur. The result would be they would become less competitive in the marketplace.

There would no longer be, for example, a $12 per month difference between keeping the J.K. Spruce 1 and 2 coal plants operating and closing them down. Some of the carbon tax plans, such as one by Citizens’ Climate Lobby, would return all the tax revenue to taxpayers. I would prefer that refunds to those of us who can afford that $12 a month instead be put into a fund to address the problems of climate change. 

Don’t be snowed. We’re going to pay one way or another: either for disaster survival and recovery or for reducing disasters.

Rick Casey

Rick Casey

Rick Casey's career spans four decades of award-winning reporting on San Antonio. He previously worked as a metro columnist for the former San Antonio Light and, later, the San Antonio Express-News.