When San Antonio’s J.T. Deely coal plant shut down in 2018, the closure was supposed to deflate a significant share of the city’s annual greenhouse gas emissions.

However, San Antonio’s rapid population growth erased most of the emissions-cutting progress made by closing the more than 40-year-old coal plant, according to the City’s 2019 greenhouse gas inventory, meant to track emissions of the greenhouse gases tied to rapid climate change. San Antonio’s emissions declined only 0.2% between 2016 and 2019, according to data released this month.

Compared to 2016, the most recent year the City tallied emissions within its city limits, residents experienced 38% more hot days when air conditioning is needed and a 13% increase in cold days that required heating. Population increased by 4%, putting more vehicles on the road and occupying more buildings that consumed more energy.

If it weren’t for Deely’s closure, emissions would have gone up in 2019, San Antonio Chief Sustainability Officer Doug Melnick said. Emissions per city resident actually decreased by 4% over those three years as CPS Energy’s operations grew cleaner.

“We were able to experience that benefit as a result of CPS Energy’s actions and their leadership,” Melnick said in a phone interview. “The goal is working with them and the community and other stakeholders to really track that path for next steps.”

In the inventory document, CPS Energy stated that the utility is “committed to reducing net carbon emissions 80% by 2040 (from the baseline of 2016) and [working] towards full carbon neutrality by 2050.”

But if closing San Antonio’s dirtiest coal plant barely made a dent in overall emissions, how is San Antonio supposed to meet its goal of getting to get to net-zero emissions by 2050? The city would have to see emissions drop by 4% to 5% per year, on average, Melnick said.

“This is one of the challenges that cities have,” Melnick said at an April 9 City Council meeting. “It’s based upon continuing to improve building efficiency, transportation improvements, but really at the end of the day it’s technology.”

The inventory is part of San Antonio’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, an effort launched by Mayor Ron Nirenberg and a wave of new, progressive City Council members in 2017. The plan passed in 2019 includes a target of reducing greenhouse gas emissions by 41% by 2030, 71% by 2040, and reaching net-zero by 2050.

During the April 9 meeting, Councilman Clayton Perry (D10) stared at a slide that showed the plunge that carbon emissions would have to take over the coming decades to reach that goal.

“How in the world are you projecting these decreases all the way to [2050]?” Perry asked Melnick. “I don’t see a way to get there, I’m sorry.”

A City of San Antonio slide shows the declines in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to reach carbon neutrality by 2050.
A City of San Antonio slide shows the declines in greenhouse gas emissions necessary to reach carbon neutrality by 2050. Credit: Courtesy / City of San Antonio

How to get there was something San Antonio’s climate plan never resolved. While the plan’s original draft included explicit statements about moving away from fossil fuels, City Council adopted a final version in October 2019 that scrubbed that language after an outcry from local businesses. Many cited the lack of any cost analysis of reaching the goal in the plan.

Nirenberg, who launched the climate plan saga with a 2017 resolution embracing the international Paris Agreement, called the flat emissions trend “sobering” at the meeting April 9. He spoke in favor of more green building policies but added that San Antonio doesn’t want to lose a “historic competitive advantage in this city in terms of [low] cost of living, whether that’s utilities, transportation, or housing.”

“In our city, we are more exposed and more sensitive to affordability issues than most other cities in the country,” Nirenberg said.

The discussion mostly focused on incremental progress. Last year, the City adopted a voluntary green building incentive last year called Property Assessed Clean Energy (PACE) financing, one of the strategies listed in the climate plan. No property owners have enrolled yet, according to the Alamo Area Council of Governments, which manages PACE.

In addition, “thousands” of municipal employees have been exposed to the sustainability office’s climate training programs, Melnick told council members. The Office of Sustainability has grown from five staff members to nine over the past several years. The City has seen a 20% reduction in emissions tied to its buildings over those three years, the report states.

“At the end of the day, my office is really small,” Melnick told the San Antonio Report. “There are initiatives that we can lead around electrification or around building efficiency, but I think a lot of our role is education, awareness, and facilitation to make sure that everyone’s moving in the right direction.”

But no one at City Hall seems eager to talk about CPS Energy’s remaining coal plant: J.K. Spruce. Following Deely’s closure, the two Spruce units are the largest single greenhouse gas-emitting facilities left in Bexar County.

Alex Birnel, advocacy manager with progressive group MOVE Texas, called the coal plant the “elephant in the room.” Under its Flexible Path plan for moving away from dirtier sources of power generation, CPS Energy has said it will close its Spruce 1 plant by 2030 but has not set a closure date for Spruce 2, which was completed in 2010. Birnel was among the climate activists in the Recall CPS coalition who unsuccessfully petitioned this year for Spruce’s early closure.

“You can do a full accounting of where all the carbon is in the system, but if you’re unwilling to address openly some of the key emitters, then you’re going to miss targets,” Birnel said. “We have failed to reduce emissions, and we can’t get on a path to reducing emissions unless we can agree upon the truth.”

CPS Energy is a financial supporter of the San Antonio Report. For a full list of business members, click here. Alex Birnel is a member of the San Antonio Report’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.