The following will be delivered to San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio City Council, and the CPS Energy Board of Trustees on April 22, 2021.
April 22, 2021
An Earth Day Open Letter
To: Mayor Ron Nirenberg, San Antonio City Council, CPS Energy Board of Trustees
In October 2020, the broader climate justice community provided each of you an outline of how the principles of energy justice would protect and empower San Antonio residents while realizing a more just and equitable society capable of meeting our obligations for rapid reduction of climate pollution (1). Among the recommendations of that letter, “On Energy Justice and a San Antonio COVID-19 Recovery,” was a call for a massive ramp-up of weatherization programs and decentralized renewable energy systems in low-income communities. That suite of recommendations highlighted the need for rate reform and the elimination of disconnections for the most vulnerable households. It also demonstrated the opportunity the clean energy market offers for jobs and opportunity for all.
We wrote at the time how COVID-19 laid bare glaring health disparities—a creation of decades of racist policymaking—that have complicated pandemic recovery efforts. Today, in the shadow of the destruction of Winter Storm Uri, we see again how race and class have played a major component in who suffered and died. The experiences of those suffering through the freezing blackout with little or no insulation, for instance, those already homebound with preexisting illness and disability, were dramatically different than those who benefitted from more resources. As members of San Antonio’s environmental justice community, our call has long included the need for prioritization of public health, safe and energy-efficient homes, as well as cleaner energy options. Progress has been grudging. This has to stop.
CPS Energy and the San Antonio Water System have come under intense scrutiny for their failures in February to prevent massive blackouts and water shortage during a week of life-threatening Arctic cold weather. But we understand that oversight of these utilities falls to our Mayor and this City Council, as well as the Council-appointed utility boards. Our shelves are heavy with plans spotlighting the vulnerabilities of our communities, but we have seen relatively little action. In 2015, the City of San Antonio invested in a Hazard Mitigation Plan, which outlined a raft of disaster scenarios, including winter storm but has put few of its recommendations into place. We modeled our vulnerability to our climate crises in several other documents since, including the SA Tomorrow Sustainability Plan and the Climate Vulnerability Assessment of 2016.
Most recently, we spent two years developing the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan, which tackles a myriad of ways to reduce our climate pollution but not the urgent need to protect people in their homes, overdue rate reforms, or a commitment to reliable electric service to our disability community. Community advocates, friends, and allies have spent nearly two months updating the previous October letter assessing the most progressive and protective energy-related policies around the United States and submit our findings, recommendations, and demands to you today. From all of you we expect a thorough review and dialogue on how we can begin implementing our key recommendations as soon as possible.
1. End the Policy of Utility Disconnections for Most Vulnerable Families
Until the novel coronavirus appeared in San Antonio, CPS Energy was cutting power to roughly 100,000 households and businesses every year for non-payment. While disconnections are currently paused in response to the economic crisis that has followed the COVID-19 pandemic, city-owned utilities in other parts of the U.S. have begun returning to disconnecting power to the most vulnerable households for non-payment. It’s just a matter of time before CPS Energy returns to their former behavior unless new commitments are made.
Considering the climate disaster known as Winter Storm Uri compounded the housing- and energy-related debt wrought by the pandemic, we call on CPS Energy to:
- Commit to zero power disconnections for nonpayment through the remainder of 2021;
- Eliminate completely the policy of disconnections for nonpayment for all households at or below 200% of the poverty level;
- Reducing to the fullest extent possible the pass through of any of the excess power costs incurred during Uri to CPS customers;
- Develop a true Critical Care Program dedicated to ensuring stable power supply to those with medical conditions (such as diabetes and burns), including anyone reliant on home medical devices, in addition to helping the disabled community keep up with their bills;
- Conduct a third-party audit of existing payment assistance programs–including customer debt management–and a study of the potential impacts of rate-structure changes that could significantly reduce the costs to overburdened lower-income neighborhoods.
- Make de-identified disconnection data (including frequency, duration, demographics, economic status, Critical Care Program participation, and geographical location) publicly available to increase transparency and support deeper community discussion about policy priorities related to household energy (2,3).
We note that CPS Energy enacted a temporary pause on disconnections in the early days of this pandemic–the same day Councilmembers called for such a pause. While Council members have historically resisted engagement with CPS Energy because of power distinctions set in the Charter agreement, the Mayor and Council have a tremendous amount of political authority to set our energy agenda when they choose to use it.
2. Move ‘Beyond Resilience’: Prioritize Weatherization, Demand Management, and Community Solar as Essential to a Just Recovery
Energy conservation and efficiency programs are widely considered the “first fuel” by the energy utility industry and are the most cost-effective way to provide resilient and affordable energy systems for local residents (4). In addition to their jobs-creation potential, conservation, demand-side management, and decentralized solar and storage systems keep people safe even during extended power outages. Effective insulation alone can mean the difference between life and death, as the U.S. Department of Energy understands (5).
We have a head start in San Antonio with CPS Energy’s Save for Tomorrow Energy Program (STEP), an innovative tool that can reduce the energy burden on and increase housing security for low-income ratepayers in San Antonio when directed appropriately. In the last 10 years, STEP has reduced total energy demand in the city by roughly 800 megawatts and cut average residential electric usage by ~12% through first-of-its-kind solar offerings, energy efficiency, and demand response measures—including a free weatherization program that reduces bills for customers across the city, as CPS’s own data proves (6). The average residential bill reductions during the first 10 years of STEP exceed the cost to fund these programs more than four-fold.
CPS Energy and San Antonio must dramatically expand and more thoughtfully apply these programs as we seek to implement a just and equitable COVID-19 recovery and more resilient San Antonio in the wake of Winter Storm Uri, which left hundreds of thousands without heat and power. As CPS Energy begins to review market proposals for energy conservation technologies for the next STEP round, our Mayor and Council must insist the utility increases energy reduction targets and work with other City departments to spark a citywide weatherization climate-response program. Such a course will reduce customer bills while preventing the construction of expensive power plants and saddle customers with more long-term debt.
- Expand our overall goal for the coming FlexSTEP program to at least 940 MW of coincident peak reduction and 1.5% annual energy saving while prioritizing weatherization and home improvement programs for the most energy vulnerable communities to keep them safe year-round;
- Expand STEP to include a natural gas-savings target to begin reducing heating and hot water fuel use in buildings;
- Dramatically increase rooftop solar and battery storage in historically neglected communities that experience higher rates of energy burden (percent of household income spent on utilities);
- Develop “resiliency centers” in those areas shown to be most vulnerable to extreme weather events;
- Work with other City agencies, including social services, to address barriers to market adoption for homes most in need, such as substandard roofs and foundations, and homes most frequently disconnected for nonpayment;
- And center these programs in a climate-conservation corps effort focused on energy-demand reduction, skills-sharing, jobs-creation, and collective community security.
Texas is second only to California in the realm of clean energy, according to E2 statistics, with San Antonio already boasting more than 21,000 clean energy jobs (7). In a city where energy efficiency jobs exceed those of the oil and gas sector, and are expected to increase dramatically in the years to come, we should leverage FlexSTEP as a skills- and jobs-training program for people struggling under the highest energy burdens and prioritize clean jobs within the Mayor’s proposed workers training program. There is no question that building back from the COVID-19 pandemic and Winter Storm Uri will require a dramatic investment in San Antonio’s energy infrastructure. The question is whether we will build back the same grid from the 20th century or if we aggressively leverage this moment to modernize our grid with 21st century clean energy, improve resilience through robust energy conservation and demand-side management, and bring a laser-focus to equitable outcomes for all San Antonio residents.
3. Establish Community-Driven Resource Planning
CPS Energy has not yet engaged in any sort of public resource planning process. This means there is no formal way for stakeholders in the community, including our elected representatives to City Council, to provide meaningful input into CPS planning and no requirement that CPS Energy consider input as part of its decision-making. Instead, CPS Energy offers proposals about how to spend billions of community rate-payer dollars in silos, without a clear path connecting the decisions to community needs. For example, CPS Energy very recently issued an energy efficiency plan (FlexSTEP) request for proposal (RFP); finally produced analysis around retiring San Antonio’s Spruce coal plant; and is evaluating responses to an earlier RFP related to solar, flexible, and battery sources. There’s nothing coherent to anyone about these moves because they aren’t the result of a broader, cohesive public decision making process.
Why does this matter? Aren’t all those RFPs good things? The answer is–maybe. When CPS issued the RFP to add a set of resources (solar, battery, and “firming” capacity), they did not share any technical or economic analysis of what specific existing resources may be replaced by these new resources and when. CPS Energy issued a FlexSTEP RFP but doesn’t share how the energy efficiency and demand savings fit in with the rest of the power generation proposals. CPS Energy needs to approach these processes in a comprehensive way to openly vet and include input from the communities that are most impacted by their decisions. CPS Energy has held “community fairs” and occasionally public input sessions after announcing new programs or initiatives. However, for this input to be meaningful, CPS Energy must not only provide opportunity for input but should respond and create a feedback loop during the deliberative part of the process.
Importantly, requiring and implementing resource planning should be an essential part of the City of San Antonio’s oversight of CPS Energy. City Council is required to approve CPS Energy rates and this resource planning work is an important foundation to making holistic decisions on rates. Being served by a public power entity, like CPS Energy, creates the opportunity and obligation of the City and CPS Energy to meet the needs of the people of San Antonio with reliable, clean power generation, equitable rates, and innovative energy efficiency and demand response programs to keep people safer in their own homes. Because CPS Energy ratepayers do not have the right to choose their electric service provider, CPS Energy’s Board and City Council should protect them as constituents and step into the role of regulator to ensure that CPS Energy’s resource planning and rates reflect the interest of the community and that ratepayers have effective means to engage on these issues. It is key that the City Council engage on both rates and resource planning as part of the Council’s general oversight functions. In particular, oversight is part of the obligations of the City Council to evaluate the prudence of CPS Energy’s investment decisions and the reasonableness of its electricity rates. Indeed, CPS Energy’s electricity rates (or its revenue requirements) are a function of the company’s capital investment and operational decisions, and San Antonio residents ultimately pay for those investments. To ensure that those rates are just and reasonable, the City is ultimately responsible for establishing rules and regulations governing CPS Energy’s resource decisions and investments.
We call on the Board of Trustees and City Council to:
- Affirmatively acknowledge their role as regulators for CPS Energy and provide regulatory oversight over CPS Energy, including oversight over rates and resource planning;
- Require that CPS Energy conduct a resource planning process with meaningful public engagement;
- Develop a performance-based regulatory framework to align CPS Energy’s performance with policy goals rooted in climate justice (ie. reducing disconnections and climate pollution, while increasing energy efficiency and household energy equity).
- Ensure that the resource planning process reflects the interests of a broad range of stakeholders;
- Create access to data and information about underlying assumptions for the public and/or stakeholders participating in a public process.
4. No Rate Increases Until Our Utility Rate Structure is Fair
The current rate structure is based on declining rate tiers: Customers that use the most electricity pay the least – less than half the price – per unit of electricity. That rate structure is grossly unfair to the people of San Antonio, a city with the highest rate of poverty among the 25 largest cities in the USA. The bottom 40 percent of SA households that were already struggling to make ends meet, even before the economic stresses due to the Winter Storm/COVID-19 crises, deserve to have utility rates that are completely affordable, relative to their per capita household income. The motto of CPS is “People First!” Its rate structure, however, makes Corporations first and the People last.
CPS rates per unit of usage is a declining tiered structure that fails to promote investment in energy-efficiency measures and conservation. Businesses that use the most electricity (e.g., SLP “class” uses, on average, 6 Million kWh per month) have no incentive to invest in expensive energy-saving technologies. Because SLP “class” has a steady, but very high, level of Demand (7,500 kW) each month, there exists a real threat of CPS Energy’s cheap rates for such businesses attracting all the wrong kinds of businesses and, ultimately, being unable and unwilling to close Spruce II and other generation sources of air pollution and greenhouse gases.
Low-income people have a disproportionately high energy burden—the percentage of household income spent on energy bills. The rate structure must be changed to prevent high energy burdens. Twenty-seven percent of Latinx residents and 20 percent of Black residents suffer a high energy burden, defined by the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy as energy bills greater than 6 percent of total disposable income. Additionally, the median energy burden of low-income multifamily households in San Antonio is 83% higher than medium- and high-income multifamily households. No pathway exists to allow the community to meaningfully participate in the decision-making process concerning rates—even as critical public health decisions must be made about energy generation.
Likewise, the current rate structure does not encourage energy conservation. Conservation is well-established as the most affordable way to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and other pollution. Thus, adjusting rates to encourage conservation is aligned with the goals of the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. Climate Action SA has long advocated for the creation of a community-represented Rate Advisory Committee (RAC) at CPS Energy with strong community engagement to ensure that all residents’ basic needs are met, regardless of their ability to pay. More than a year since first introduced to the CPS Energy Board of Trustees, that body is taking shape.
We call on our City Council to resist any attempt to raise utility rates until this RAC has formed and been able to restructure utility rates in a fair and just manner. If San Antonio is going to avoid a return to the same inequitable economic structure of the pre-pandemic world, our elected leaders must insist on equitable rate reform before any additional rate hike.
These rate structure changes are needed to make the transition to a whole different kind of electricity grid, while working fast to protect the grid from the damaging impacts of climate change.
We must develop a better rate structure that incentivizes energy efficiency and conservation by using meaningful price-signals to reduce overall energy demand, coincident peak demand, and greenhouse gas emissions in CPS electricity production.
To do that, we must:
- Expand customer “classes” who would be subject to less burdensome rates, specifically:
- low-income and medically vulnerable populations
- low-energy use customers;
- Change the rate structure to be closely linked to the full marginal price of energy, including the externalized costs due to air pollution and climate change;
- Change the rate structure to reflect the full value of customers’ investment in Distributed Energy Resources (DERS), such as onsite solar energy and battery storage, and the use of electric vehicle two-way charging.
5. Shut Down the Spruce Coal Plant by 2030
San Antonio releases 17.3 million metric tons of CO2 equivalent per year, according to the Climate Action and Adaptation Plan. To avoid the worst manifestations of global warming in this climate crisis requires cutting that number in half (or better) by 2030. Our own climate plan requires us to cut our emissions by 41 percent by 2030. We know that reforming the transportation sector—with remarkably scant funding and millions of miles of roads—is a multi-decadal prospect. The only way to hit our target is by retiring Spruce, which is responsible for roughly 8 million metric tons per year (MMT/yr) on a 10-year average.
While CPS is working to replace their aging, rarely used, gas power plants, which collectively contribute just a fraction of Spruce’s pollution, CPS’s leadership refuses to even share possible retirement scenarios for Spruce after years of requests—including during the CAAP-development process. We expect our Mayor and City Council to call on CPS to commit to a Spruce retirement by 2030 at the latest. CPS Energy—with the strong encouragement of the Mayor and Council—must make this commitment immediately as part of a community-centered, transparent generation resource planning process (4, above). Our early retirement of “Dirty” Deely proves that we can retire a major polluting asset far ahead of schedule while safely transitioning workers and expanding cleaner energy sources.
In October 2020, we wrote to each of you in our first Open Letter on Energy Justice about how energy reform, redirection of resources, and climate action can aid a justice-based COVID-19 recovery. And while many of you, our elected leaders, swore with the onset of COVID that you would not allow our city to return to the same structural inequities that made San Antonio so vulnerable to the virus in the first place, we have seen little evidence of structural reform. In fact, the devastation of Winter Storm Uri showed all of us how little investment has been made over the years in climate and disaster planning.
Today, our organizations, memberships, and community allies across the city call upon you to immediately take up these needed reforms. Be it the compounding hazards of our climate crisis or the daily suffering caused by inequitable distribution of risk related to our energy choices, the hardships borne by our residents will not be lightened without concerted action. Meanwhile the accelerating pace of climate-related disaster means we have no time to lose.
- Alliance of Nurses for Healthy Environments
- Sierra Club, Lone Star Chapter
- Public Citizen
- Southwest Workers Union
- All of Us or None Texas
- Bexar County Green Party
- Society of Native Nations
- Esperanza Peace & Justice Center
- Yanawana Herbolarios
- Texas Rising
- American Indians in Texas at the Spanish Colonial Missions
- SA Stands Coalition
- Citizens Climate Lobby, SA Chapter
- Energia Mia
- MOVE Texas
- SATX Indivisible
- People’s Parity Project
- Compost Queens
- San Antonio Progressive Alliance
- Charles Roundtree Bloom Project
- William C. Velásquez Institute
- Sierra Club, Alamo Group
- San Antonio DSA
- Carrizo/Comecrudo Tribe of Texas
- Texas Drought Project
- Wildlife Rescue and Rehabilitation
- Party for Socialism and Liberation
- Open Letter: On Energy Justice and a San Antonio COVID-19 Recovery
- “Lights Out in the Cold: Reforming Utility Shut-Off Policies as is Human Rights Matter,” National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
- “Protecting Seriously Ill Consumers from Utility Disconnections: What States Can Do to Save Lives Now,” National Consumer Law Center.
- “Energy efficiency is the first fuel and demand for it needs to grow,” IEA
- U.S. DOE Energy Efficiency Resilience Nexus (see “Passive Survivability“)
- CPS Energy Flexible Path Resource Plan
- E2: Repowering America’s Economy in the Wake of COVID-19