A view of CPS Energy Spruce units.
CPS Energy Spruce units in December 2018. Credit: Bonnie Arbittier / San Antonio Report

San Antonio summers are a time of retreat.

During 2012, Texas’s hottest year on record, San Antonians fled to movie theaters, water parks, libraries, and VIA’s designated cooling centers (our bus fleet). For those in the more than 12,000 homes and businesses that had their power cut off by CPS Energy for nonpayment during the grinding heat of June, July, and August of that year, retreat may have been life-saving. Today, as we burn into what is projected to be the new global hottest year on record thanks to accelerating global warming, power cutoffs have been suspended for the first time in years. But cooling options aren’t what they used to be. 

With the coronavirus pandemic shooting past worst-case modeling and a string of 100-plus degree days already piling up – including a record-shattering 107-degree day earlier this week – most traditional cooling options are no longer viable. Ice houses are shuttered. Movie theaters are functioning at half capacity. Water parks, city pools, and splash pads are closed. Senior and community centers will remain open, though virus fears appear to be keeping sheltering attendance low. And VIA’s buses, a key element of San Antonio’s cooling center network, are limping along with reduced service. What relief is to be found this year will be mostly at home.

Yet for those without air conditioning, those in poorly insulated homes, for the many thousands who have lost incomes, this summer will pose an unprecedented challenge. Pandemic has collided with the climate crisis, catching a city unprepared on both counts. Factoring in longstanding lack of investment in Black and Brown communities – and the resulting food insecurity, poverty, and environmental illness – and it truly is a perfect storm of our own making.

Officials at City-owned San Antonio Water System and CPS Energy stopped disconnecting power and water in May for the duration of the crisis. Yet no promises have been made as to how long these disconnects will remain on pause or what becomes of the accumulating debt families are bearing. Local leaders have pledged to tackle the historic inequities exacerbating the current crisis. But there has been no public examination of the utility’s historic poverty-compounding practice of power disconnections that has left hundreds of thousands without electricity over the past decade. Our mayor and city council must step up to publicly demand the eradication of utility disconnections on our most vulnerable residents, unjust patterns so long-lived they’ve become invisible. 

Disconnection numbers, supplied by CPS Energy to the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club following an official public information request, are deeply troubling. In 2011, the third hottest year in Texas’ history, CPS cut power to 5,777 homes and businesses between June and August. In 2017, the second hottest year on record for the state, CPS Energy cut power to 13,911 homes and businesses between June and August. During the hottest time of 2018, the week of August 20, with temperatures settled around 99 degrees all week, CPS Energy cut off 909 customers for nonpayment. If most of these August disconnects were residences, that likely left roughly 2,700 men, women, and children powerless that week alone

A CPS Energy spokesperson said the utility uses “multiple factors” when deciding when it is “safe” to cut off power to customer homes, including National Weather Service’s Heat Advisories. CPS Energy has a range of assistance programs. Most of them are geared toward settling accounts. Seniors and disabled customers may be offered more time to catch up on their bills or have late fees waived. The only program that appears to substantially forgive unwieldy bills is the Residential Energy Assistance Partnership (REAP), which requires incomes far below federal poverty guidelines and additional proof of hardship – hardship beyond, you know, trying to survive on less than $13,000 per year.

These summer disconnects – 99,908 in 2018 alone – foretell heat exhaustion, heatstroke, and death. But those aren’t the only risks. In one cutoff-related tragedy, a Westside man and two children perished in 2019, apparently from carbon monoxide fumes. Days after being cut off by CPS, the man began using a gasoline-powered generator in the home. Last month, Raphael Garcia, a local resident with spinal muscular atrophy who is dependent on a variety of home electric medical devices, told the CPS Energy Board of Trustees about his experience of being cut off – before his mic was cut mid-sentence. At the same meeting, Angela Pardo called for greater investment in home weatherization programs, like CPS’ FlexSTEP, describing her family’s experience navigating heat waves huddled in one room around a single window unit with foil on the windows. 

An examination of FlexSTEP by Optimal Energy paid for by the Sierra Club looks at similar utility programs in Austin and Los Angeles and found CPS Energy underperforming as well as new opportunities. We distributed our recommendations to Council for consideration before an anticipated fall vote. While past efficiency investments have shown they generally pay for themselves, Pardo spotlighted another source of funding. “If you are wondering where the money would come from, because they are expensive programs, there is always money in the police department.”

It’s true. CPS Energy is the largest contributor to San Antonio’s General Fund. And the San Antonio Police Department is the greatest slice of that budget. With Black Lives Matter pressuring our communities to finally face the issues of income disparity, incarceration, and racist policing, a call has gone out to move funds from systems of punitive justice like police departments and detention centers into community empowerment programs – such as, perhaps, expanded energy efficiency programs and safer, more affordable housing powered by clean energy.

Because the FlexSTEP vote involves rates, our Council is allowed a vote, and an opportunity to challenge the structural issues around our utility – its purpose and its performance. As surely as we seek to dismantle the legacies of racist oppression, class division, and inequitable distribution of resources, we must take a hard look at CPS Energy, where so many of these links collide – including, not incidentally, CPS’ continued failure to plan for the closure or our Spruce coal plant, the region’s largest contributor to the climate crisis. When Councilman Roberto Treviño first raised in May the need to pause disconnections, he also urged his fellow Council members to revisit the issue when the pandemic receded. With the virus in ascendance, and the pandemic’s economic toll rising, it’s clear we can’t wait that long.

Greg Harman

Greg Harman

Greg Harman is a Sierra Club clean energy organizer and founder and co-editor of the online journal Deceleration.news.