Unheard jobs debate: Rifkin report promises tens of thousands of local jobs while CPS tiptoes

Greg Harman

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Damn natural gas.

We just have too much of the stuff, and that's driven down profits at one of the city's biggest cash cows: CPS Energy. To keep the city's 14-percent cut of CPS profits from growing too anemic, CPS has plans to raise your rates by more than 9 percent in the spring, CPS Chief Financial Officer Paula Gold-Williams told the CPS Board of Directors on Monday. But don't worry, once the Spruce Two coal plant comes online later in the year, they may credit you back a dollar or two.

Her other message was that nuclear expansion â?? that $5.2 billion bugaboo that has the city overheating â?? was not the only reason for expected rate increases deep in the next decade.

“If we decided not to do that, you'd still have pressure, no matter what option you choose,” Gold-Williams said.

But if the City Council gives CPS the all-clear later this month to take out anther $400 million in debt service to keep to the nuclear path, there will be unanticipated victims.

Specifically: planned installation of scrubbers for the old coal plants that would help limit high-ozone days, heart attacks, and new cases of asthma by eliminating the bulk of the sulfur dioxide coming out of the stacks. These scrubbers â?? supposedly paid for in that infamous 3.5-percent rate increase back in 2008 â?? would be have to wait “a year or so,” said Gold-Williams.

Still, don't blame nuclear.

It's becoming something of a mantra around CPS. Nuclear, even at $5.2 billion for a 40-percent share, is “only one tool in the toolbox.”

Yet a year later CPS haven't been able to sell down from a 50-percent share to its recommendation of 40-percent.

It got worse at Monday's meeting as both CEOs Milton Lee and Steve Bartley described the nuclear play as “a bridge” between traditional power sources and the renewable, non-polluting sources expected to take the lead in the 2020s.

While CPS's leadership doesn't think renewable sources can boost the city over the coming projected energy shortfall of 2020, the following energy crunch is a different story.

CPS Energy's chief sustaina-dude Cris Eugster drove home reminded the board that the utility plans to retire six gas turbines in the 2020s, losing roughly 2,200 megawatts in the process. Aging coals plants will lurch into the tomb in the early '30s. Good riddance, an' all, but what's going to keep the lights on?

By adding in 1,000 megawatts of green tech â?? conservation plus on-site solar, wind, and biomass â?? the city would just about meet that 2030 gap â?? if we can figure out a good way of storing that solar and wind power. Storage was treated just shy of metaphysics in the discussion, but it can't be lost on our utility that other cities and utilities are already using compressed air, pumped hydro, and batteries.

Of course, many on the green scene have been arguing these solutions could meet not just the 2030 gap, but the 2020 projected power gap that CPS plans to plug with nuclear.

Green power? Meet San Antonio-style hesitancy.

“We don't want to go bet on a lot of things,” Eugster told the board. “We want them to prove themselves out.”

That brings us to the long-awaited white paper from efficiency guru Jeremy Rifkin (left, in San Antonio earlier this year).

The Express-News has announced the full cost of the contracted Rifkin plan ($16 billion to $20 billion), and Eugster's presentation mentioned 16,000 green-collar jobs by 2030 pursuing efficiency, but the Rifkin report promises even more.

“First, the working analysis to this point suggests a net average benefit of 10,000 jobs per year added to the regional economy â?¦ To the extent that San Antonio increases its capacity to provide more of the materials and skills locally, using the Four Pillar investments to empower new local markets, the number of jobs will grow well above the jobs cited above,” it states.

So, an investment of $800 million per year in transforming San Antonio into one of the clean-energy capitals of the world would create massive numbers of jobs (200,000 by 2030, by my math). And considering more than 90 percent of local energy is used in San Antonio's buildings (compared to 75 percent average nationally), we would expect a huge amount of that money to be used to weatherize local homes and put solar panels on roofs, suggesting your electric bill could be crashing, too, freeing up even more money into the local economy.

In a way, this is the conversation the city has been dying to have. Strangely, now that the city's commitment to the nuclear expansion is all but sewn up, the potential of renewable power for San Antonio was celebrated Monday by CPS Energy Co-CEOs Milton Lee and Steve Bartley.

“These will allow us to have lower bills over time,” Bartley said of renewable power sources. He called the coal-fired Spruce Two power plant and planned South Texas Project 3&4 expansion a “bridge” to the coming decentralized economy.

“The transition has already begun,” agreed Lee.

If nuclear, at a $13 billion price tag, 60-year operating life, and waste stream that remains hazardous to all life for hundreds of thousands of years, is a “bridge,” it's a damn risky one.

Council is being led to believe we will be able to choose a lower share in the project at some future date, sometime after we've already paid in $1 billion. And if we can't sell our way out? If there is no buyer? There is no answer to this question apart from the sucking sound of money down the drain, despite the Express-News' endorsement and claim that all such questions have been answered.

Far less uncertain are the promises of clean-energy solutions being explored all over the world: homes and offices that double as power generators, solar and wind energy storage technologies, plug-in hybrid vehicles. Thanks to our understanding of the planet-destabilizing costs of carbon-polluting power sources, there is a guaranteed market now and for untold years to come for such “clean” creations, the Rifkin report states.

STP nuclear expansion represents about 1,000 jobs 200 miles away. The Rifkin report promises tens of thousands of jobs for decades to come in the San Antonio region. Do we really want to wait until after the nuclear vote to decide how deeply we can afford to commit to the Third Industrial Revolution?