Turning the ship: CPS assembles two-day panel of clean-energy experts

Rifkin with Geis? That's twice as nice.

Greg Harman

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To keep up with the energy needs of the eight-county San Antonio area while also reducing greenhouse gas emissions will likely cost up to $30 billion come 2030, Skip Laitner, of the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy, told a gathering of local energy leaders and international experts Monday.

That's the bad news.

The good news is it's going to cost the region $400 billion anyway just keeping up with the needs of an expected 90 percent population boom during the next two decades. Fortunately, dollars spent on efficiency and renewable power have a way of paying for themselves and the area could save twice the $30 billion amount in energy savings and other "productivity gains," Laitner said.

On Monday, as part of the city's unfolding Mission Verde sustainability plan, CPS Energy and a smattering of their city administrative masters met with representatives of some of the world's foremost clean energy programs for a sustainability workshop geared toward forging a path to a more sustainable, decentralized utility model involving non-polluting energy sources at numerous points around the city.

The meeting, punctuated by only a couple 20-minute breaks, picks up again in the morning.

CPS Energy, already a leader in wind-power purchases, has made news over the past year as it has deepened its commitment to future energy savings through efficiency and solar power (while concurrently pursuing plans to double the size of its nuclear power complex outside Bay City).

“Everything we're gong to do is costly,” said Steve Bartley, interim general manager for CPS Energy. Efficiency “is the smartest thing to do compared to the alternative.”

CPS pledged to keep pace with the European Union's goals of generating 20 percent of its energy from renewable energy by 2020. (For some competition-inspiring perspective, California aims to meet this 20 percent mark next year.)

For San Antonio to achieve the goal, however, the utility will need to explore a host of energy storage technologies, said Jeremy Rifkin, president of the Foundation on Economic Trends and adviser to numerous European leaders on matters of energy use, leading proceedings at the Hyatt's Hill Country Resort.

Efficiency programs will also be critical.

CPS Board Chair Aurora Geis said CPS is considering setting aside one percent of its revenue (roughly $9 million per year) to fund more sustainable energy, the same amount already being aside for a program to bury utility lines.

“That's not going to do a heck of a lot for a 20 percent goal,” replied Laitner.

Funding is a key issue for the utility, which froze its residential solar rebate program at the beginning of the year as a reaction to the City Council's failure to approve the full five percent rate increase officials requested a year ago.

Scott Smith, director of environmental planning for CPS, said the utility is planning to reduce its carbon output by 28 million tons by 2032. It's a feat he said requires nuclear power. Carbon capture technology is also being considered by the utility. Unfortunately, both carbon capture and nuclear dramatically increase the amount of water required over traditional coal-based power production â?? not an insignificant issue in a state thought to be entering a permanent drought.

Negotiating efforts with solar contractors to start fulfilling the utility's pledge to install 100 megawatts of sun power in San Antonio have been troubled by difficulty getting the companies to commit to providing jobs to the local economy, another CPS staffer said.

“We're in a bit of a Catch-22,” said Bartley. One the one hand, the utility wants to grow its renewable and efficiency programs. But having one of the lowest electric rates in the country makes it impractical to move too quickly, he said.

San Antonio can't close the price gap between traditional energy sources and renewables through its own subsidies, he said.

“I think Texas needs to step up. I think we have an abundance of resources here,” Bartley said. “This could be a huge economic development issue for Texas.” However, in Texas, “I'm not sure we have an appropriate sense of urgency.”

It was unclear what “urgency” he was speaking of, but it likely wasn't the latest global warming predictions suggesting greenhouse-gas emissions must plateau and start to dramatically fall in the next few years to avoid potential runaway warming.

Barry Smitherman, chairman of the Texas Public Utility Commission, caught the bug. “Jeremy scared me so much last night about climate change, I couldn't sleep,” he said of Rifkin's keynote the night before.

Strange that with the looming energy challenges facing the city, including a scheduled fall decision on whether or not to invest untold billions doubling the size of the city's nuclear-power complex outside Bay City, the city's political leaders were conspicuously absent. The only council member at the landmark meeting was Louis Rowe.

Although big solar projects and sprawling wind farms grab the headlines, the panel of experts that opened the two-day workshop Monday said efficiency programs are the true “fifth” fuel (or “first” fuel, depending how optimistic you feel about conservation over coal, gas, nuclear, and renewables). Still, it is most often overlooked.

CPS officials gave mixed signals at the gathering as to how fast and how far they are prepared to go â?? just what sort of urgency they share. Hopefully, they'll do one better than the Hyatt hosting the group.

While nations have started to ban incandescent bulbs, Philips Lighting's Kaj Den Daas, gave expression to what may had already noted.

“If you look around, there's not one LED in this room,” he said, signaling to the high-ceilinged glare. “Maybe in the exit sign.”

Getting the clean-energy message out to the public may be even trickier considering that up until last Thursday CPS was still telling reporters this week's gathering was closed to the public and press. Talk about mixed signals.


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