Greening Alamo City

It's just a "B" session for crying out loud. Still they come crowding in as San Anto Mayor Phil Hardberger lays the foundation for this afternoon's presentation on "COSA Mission Verde" — the city's amped up efficiency and renewable energy adventure.

First dribbled in his State of the City speech back in January, plans for a new City-wide energy policy have been incubating at City Hall even as a trench warfare has been waged these past months against the City's utility, CPS Energy, over plans for two new nuclear plants. The tussle has included back-room warnings from activists of a potential "Nuclear Phil" campaign if Alamo City leaders didn't get on the stick with serious energy conservation initiatives.

Since that time, it's been meetings galore, and the direction of the conversation is looking dead-on. Specifically, the group that was hired to explore the city's energy use habits is one of the best in the nation, Chicago's Center for Neighborhood Technology.

Raging gas prices and Wall Street jitters on the subject on nuclear power have provided the perfect launching pad for a major green initiative in San Antonio. And each councilmember in turn went to pains to show they were on board, with District 5 Councilmember Lourdes Galvan describing her struggle to pull plugs to save at home and District 10-er John Clamp saying he will rush the message of conservation to his neighborhood association and beyond.
CPS President Milton Lee wobbles and taps, and speaks when invited, but no mistake — this multi-pronged endeavor is the city's baby. The vision is laid out by Hardberger as a sermonette.

There are light rails, and net metering, timed traffic lights, and massive home efficiency campaigns, "zip" cars, tidal power, solar

There will be task forces formed on transportation and sustainable building.

Overheard: "I wonder where he got all these ideas?"

Hardy's been getting schooled these past months — and by the sound of his enthusiastic and informed oratory, he's been a good student. Still, there will be fights soon enough with the building lobby, who will surely resist any significant changes to city construction codes.

If any serious light rail pitches get made, you can bet a good number of the businesses and homeowners along those corridors will be up in arms as they were in Houston not too long ago.

And there will be claims to the Mayor's throne hinging, at least in part, on who is best qualified to continue leading Alamo City's just begun Green Revolution, our Mission Verde.

Speaking of which, Councilmember Diance Cibrian in her own oversized oratory called out solar deviant Bill Sinkin and gushed: "Isn't this just like a dream come true?" The 95-year-old half a chamber away is inaudible.

By the time Hardberger  wrapped up his gospel of green prosperity in the Council's side chamber, and City Chief Information Officer and former state senator Richard Varn clicked through the more detailed Power Point, there was still time to pass the talking stick among Council (and take a cell call on speaker phone from Councilmember Justin Rodriquez, an adamant supporter of the new sustainability vision).

Memorable quotes:

"It doesn't sound too good, but they call them 'green collar jobs.' Adults and young people are going to make their living finding ways to use as little energy as possible."

"They'll be others — even harnessing the power of the sea. Some of these will be 'out there' more than others."

"Before we go too far down that road (with traditional energy sources), let's see how far we can go with what the Good Lord gave us."
— Mayor Phill Hardberger

"I can't top that mayor."
— Sheryl Scully, City Manager

"It cannot be done by the City alone, or the utility alone, it must be done with substantial community input."
— City Chief Information Officer Richard Varn

"I really believe we should never build another coal plant in the City of San Antonio."
— District 8 Councilmember Diane Cibrian


Here's the executive summary from CNT:

Executive Summary

CNT recommends addressing the risks associated with rising costs for energy and transportation in a way that is both cost-effective and maximizes the creation and capture of economic value. Specific proposals include:

  • Development of an energy efficiency and clean portfolio strategy for CPS

  • Implementation of new policies such as a building code

  • Better energy management at the City itself

  • Coordination between the City's IT department, SAWS and CPS of advanced metering for tracking and managing energy and transportation use and cost

  • Development of a modern transportation strategy and enhancement of current transportation choice and service opportunities

  • Linking energy efficiency and transportation efficiency opportunities with economic development strategy

  • Improved capital access and workforce development for emerging green industries

  • Information and neighborhood efforts to help households and businesses reduce exposure to rising prices and help stabilize or reduce the cost of living.

General Findings

The City and its associated agencies in the region as well as the economy in general face pressures of significant scale in the provision of energy, water and transportation services. For the average household, these costs can easily equal or exceed the cost of housing. San Antonio overall can be characterized as a "hot" market for business location with a fast-growing population. But from an economic sustainability perspective, it can also be characterized as a "low wage, high waste" economy. This is not likely to be sustainable. San Antonio produces neither its energy nor its water, and so the increased demand for these resources constitutes a large and increasing drain on the economy.

The Renewable Energy Policy Project finds that the technical potential for renewable power technology manufacturing could replace a significant portion of the hundreds of manufacturing jobs lost in the past decade, but this will take concerted investment and a trained workforce. San Antonio's real estate form fits what's increasingly called the "Drive 'til You Qualify Market." The majority of employment is located in just 10 employment centers located largely on the region's beltways, and San Antonio's transportation demand, at 27 miles per capita daily, is one of the top five in the nation. This leaves working and fixed income households vulnerable to energy price shocks. Transportation costs usually start to equal or exceed shelter costs for households at a point about 10-12 miles from the city center.

Energy Challenges

The region is subject to mild winters, with an expected average of 2332 heating degree days but a relatively high demand for air conditioning at 2492 cooling degree days and growing. The region abuts a desert and the nature of the landscape strongly influences both energy and water demand. Decades of neglect of San Antonio's urban forest led to renewed calls in recent years for restoration, and scientific surveys show that a combination of local planting and more reflective roofs, sidewalks and streets, and can result in local reduction of outdoor temperatures in the range of 6 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit.

Energy demand and energy bills

Actual home efficiency is rated in energy units of BTUs per square foot per degree-day. Measured ratings can range from zero (super-efficient homes with on-sight renewable energy sources) to 10 or more on this scale. Assuming an average home size of 1500 square feet, as an example, the data published in the recent CPS study suggests San Antonio residence would receive a poor rating in the range of 7 or more on this scale. San Antonio has enjoyed low rates but has paid for high consumption.

Energy Supply from Reduced Demand

The most successful programs at getting to scale are those that:

  • Package necessary services in a one-stop delivery (e.g., energy audits, contractor selection, and financing);

  • Get around split incentives, such as those that exist between landlords and tenants through incentives and supportive policies, such as building codes;

  • Use measured results to set goals;

  • Build effective partnerships with competent private and public sector actors;

  • Reach hard-to-reach and small users at large scale by organizing at the community-wide or neighborhood scale;

  • Build demand for the services through specialized information channels; and

  • Work to achieve success through continuous improvement and recurring activities (e.g. setting and enforcement of building standards through both codes and voluntary agreements).

Transportation Challenges

The need for upgraded transportation is a function of both absolute growth in travel and in the number of vehicles traveling, and in the forces that influence that level of travel. A principle influence is land use and the distance that people and goods must travel; a second is the availability of time to travel and the need to use time productively; a third is the availability of travel mode choice; and a fourth is tolerance for the external impacts of transportation, whether these are environmental, economic, aesthetic or health and safety-related in nature.

Household Transportation Expenditures

Nationally, 18 percent of trips taken by metropolitan households are for the journey to work or work-related purposes, and 82 percent are for shopping, school, recreational or social purposes.

San Antonio travel 27 miles per capita per day

At 27 miles per capita per day, a household of 2.5 persons will be driving 24,637 miles per year. Our cost model, which is conservatively based on the model provided by the Federal Highway Administration, is that each vehicle carries a fixed cost of $5,068 per year, and a variable cost in 2000 of 7.5 cents per mile for gasoline and 1.5 cents for other expenses. Fixed costs have been flat since then (people holding on to cars longer, buying smaller ones when they can, cars lasting longer) but the variable price of gasoline at $4.000 per gallon is now 20 cents per mile, plus 1.5 cents for miscellaneous expense.

So a 2-car household in San Antonio driving 24,637 miles per year total would spend $5068+$5068 +$0.21(24637) or $5174 for variable costs, mostly gasoline, and $10,136 for automobile ownership, or $15, 310 per year total.

In 2008, estimated median metropolitan household income is $45,000, and so transportation expenditures are amounting to $15,310/$45,000 or 34 percent of income. Median annual housing costs for owners with a mortgage are likely $18,000 or 40 percent of income.

San Antonio fits the profile of a "Drive Until You Qualify" market—the transportation costs are largely determined by the location of the house, too many "affordable" homes are located at a distance such that the need to drive is high, effectively doubling the price of the home for working families and households, those earning under $50,000 per year.

Specific opportunities that can be tried in San Antonio—In the short and medium term, there are several things that can help mitigate the high costs of gasoline and of travel in general, that should be considered as priorities

  • Better information and counseling to make use of available options

  • Better marketing of employer provided or supported transit services, including use of deductibility for employer-assisted "transit check" programs and federal parking cash-out incentives

  • Expanded levels of scheduled service from VIA

  • Serious and aggressive pursuit of both car-sharing services and car-pooling

  • Improved regulation of and support for pedestrian and bicycling amenities

  • Include screening of major development proposals and public siting decisions for locations that minimize unnecessary travel demand

  • Explore opportunities to better match residential locations with non-residential activities, both employment and otherwise

Aggressive planning and lobbying should be supported for the following options:

  • Rail relocation to support the proposed Austin-San Antonio ASA Rail service

  • Investment in modern streetcar service on high-density routes

  • Long range development of either Bus Rapid Transit or some form of commuter rail

  • Development of community telecommuting options

  • Develop specialized districts that can expedite mixed use development in conjunction with better transportation choices

  • Develop a regional strategy that can deliver consensus around these goals, put into place an effective inter-agency coordinating mechanism and better support a financial strategy sufficient to get the job done.

Economic Challenges: Creating and Capturing Value Locally

A sustainable economy needs to provide services efficiently and affordably with a minimum of environmental disruption, and it also needs to provide sufficient jobs that pay a competitive wage. We find that methods of intercepting the economic value of the efficiency and ecological improvements that result from policies and actions are an essential part of an economic development strategy for sustainability. Cities and states are developing ways to attract investment, training a workforce to meet the needs of emerging industries related to their sustainability goals, helping households better understand how to take advantage of initiatives that can lower the cost of living and improve their own environmental performance, and organizing collectively for more efficient and successful community economic benefits. San Antonio has a strong network of governmental and private financial counseling and financial literacy services that could be mobilized to help households take advantage of transportation alternatives and energy assistance.

Scroll to read more San Antonio News articles
Join the San Antonio Current Press Club

Local journalism is information. Information is power. And we believe everyone deserves access to accurate independent coverage of their community and state.
Help us keep this coverage going with a one-time donation or an ongoing membership pledge.


Join SA Current Newsletters

Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.