Groups call on Council to reject $400 million for nukes until alternatives are studied

Clean-energy promises: Karen Hadden, of SEED, and Amanda Hass, of Esperanza Peace and Justice Center.

Greg Harman

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San Antonio can avoid the high risks associated with new nuclear power by banking instead on a raft of renewable energy sources and energy-saving technologies, representatives of a coalition of organizations fighting the proposed expansion of the South Texas Project announced Monday.

Since city leaders haven't yet compared CPS Energy's nuke proposal with a stable of alternative energy sources, the members of Energía Mía called for the City Council to reject the city utility's request for another $400 million for the nuke plan when they meet on October 29.

“We think that they should stop and look and do a side-by-side comparison, because there is so much that can be done in the world of energy efficiency and renewables,” said Karen Hadden, executive director of the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development Coalition.

From committed half owner, to majority 40-percent status, to an intended 20- to 25-percent minority stake: San Antonio's desired share in two proposed nuclear reactors has been throttled back by at least half since the city-owned utility submitted its joint application with NRG Energy to the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission in the fall of 2007. Although NRG has been shopping CPS's undesired 10 percent for months, no buyer has been found. And with CPS Energy's vote last week to reduce yet again, there's another 20 percent to shop around.

“Today, under the current contract, they are on the hook for $6.5 billion,” Tom “Smitty” Smith, head of Texas' Public Citizen, reminded a small crowd of reporters outside a home in the Alta Vista neighborhood on Monday. “With our plan you could meet the 40-percent and you could easily meet the 20-percent â?? all for less cost, and all for less risk.”

Considering that most of the city's energy use occurs in the housing sector, there are huge gains to be made there, members said. In fact, the group held its press conference outside the home of Energía Mía member Alice Canestaro-Garcia to make just that point.

A home energy audit over the weekend revealed an absence of attic insulation, a common problem in San Antonio's older homes, according to Bob Sperno of Bullseye Home Inspection. Sperno recommended simple changes that, if put into practice aggressively across the city, could reduce the city's energy demand by up to 1,000 megawatts, according to Energía Mía.

“It definitely needs work, but I'm interested in getting geothermal installed and, at some point, solar.” Canestaro-Garcia said. “I'm looking forward to generating my own energy and selling it back to CPS.”

Factoring in the expansion of solar, wind energy, and geothermal â?? as well as a portion of natural gas â?? and the city can forgo the planned nuclear expansion entirely.

“Before there is a vote on this `nuclear` plant, there needs to be a full analysis of all the alternatives,” Smith said, “and have that done in a public process, where the public can see the data, where the public can truth-test the data.”

A variety of experts and organizations (including the Current) have challenged CPS Energy's figures about what it will cost to reduce energy use through weatherization programs and energy efficiency.

Yet, with San Antonio's cheap electric prices, getting residents to invest in insulation, window caulking, or solar screens is a challenge, one local contractor told me. Expected rate increases of five-percent or more every other year for the next decade will spur some individual investments. However, CPS hopes to eliminate 771 megawatts of energy use by 2020 through an energy efficiency program funded through the fuel-surcharge portion of customers' bills.

An unsung hero of the renewable-energy pantheon was also pumped at the morning event. “Everyone's talking about geothermal like it's an untested, untried thing for the future,” complained Charlie Lonsberry of Southwest Mechanical Services. “We've been installing geothermal systems in South Texas for 15 years.”

Lonsberry said geothermal can cut a typical home's energy use by up to 70 percent and pay for itself within six years.

The group's press release adds:

Two independent studies on CPS and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission data have shown that alternatives are far cheaper than a nuclear plant. While CPS is making big commitments to weatherization, they have been typically spending more money than others to achieve the same result. CPS is spending two to three times more per saved megawatt than other utilities in Texas or Houston. In Houston the city teamed with its local utility and did a neighborhood-by-neighborhood retrofit program that saved 14.6% of the energy usage in each home for $1,000, a fraction of what CPS is spending. A recent study for CPS found the cost of efficiency was about half the cost of the proposed nuclear reactor. If CPS builds the nuclear plant and the energy is too expensive to sell it could send the utility into a nuclear death spiral.

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