The San Antonio City Council's message to city-owned CPS Energy, last week's approval of a 3.5 percent rate hike (to be delayed until AFTER this summer) rather than the requested 5 percent, approaches very closely a vote of no confidence in the utility.
What will we get for the 3.5? We don't know. CPS officials were totally unprepared to discuss such a thing. I mean, they came for 5.
In their build-up, most councilmembers took a breath between questions to stress that they don't want anybody messin' with our efficiency or renewable energy portfolios — unless it's to expand them.
CPS, you may recall was gunning for a 5 percent rate increase to help cover costs of putting scrubbers on its coal plants, finish up a new coal plant, and invest in investing in new nuclear power plants. Community members demanded Council demand CPS strip the nuke aspect (CPS say: <1%) out of the equation. So it was done.
Then there was a period of poor communication, hacking off members of the council. One told me it was like playing a "shell game" trying to get good data from CPS.
District Three Councilmember Jennifer Ramos complained the rate increase will particularly hurt the lowest-income residents of SA.
"These older homes don't have any type of insulation… My families will be looking at possibly a 10- to 12-dollar monthly increase," Ramos said. "At 3.5, I think it's a good compromise."
Which is an important point to the efficiency clique crowding the chambers for much of the day. Not only do poorly insulated homes hurt their owners in high bills, but by wasting tremendous amounts of energy they also push CPS to build more power plants at incredible costs. (Current best estimates have placed twin nukes around $17 billion, about $10 billion more than CPS partner NRG Energy has previously suggested.)
"I also learned a lesson from my mom, that you don't always get what you ask for," said Councilman Justin Rodriquez.
Ramos added that requested new efficiency/sustainable energy studies are "not negotiable" in the shifting landscape. "Certainly, the CPS board, since they are appointed by council, are listening," she said.
Councilmember Diane Cibrian added that CPS had to learn a new word: "negawatts."
Negawatts is an insider term for efficiency technologies, an abbreviated form for negative watts, energy saved, tho it started as a government typo.
Here's mastermind Amory Lovins being interviewed on Living on Earth:
The idea of the negawatt conserving energy through greater efficiency started out as a typo – an "n" in place of an "m". Energy activist Amory Lovins came across the mistake in a Colorado Public Utilities Commission report. The goof caught his fancy, and may help us power our future.
Amory Lovins founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that focuses on energy issues. He was in Hawaii when I caught up with him by phone and asked him about the negawatt.
LOVINS: A negawatt is electricity that's saved by using it more efficiently or at a smarter time. So, you don't need to produce it to get the same hot showers, cold beer, or other effect that you want.
GELLERMAN: And you've been living in a negawatt world for what – 25 years now?
LOVINS: Yeah. I live up in the Rockies, and the first thing we did was insulate it so well that it uses only about one percent of the normal amount of heating energy, and that comes from a couple of occasionally-run wood stoves, because you've got to burn the energy somehow. And then it also made the house eleven hundred bucks cheaper to build because super installation and super windows cost eleven hundred bucks less to put in than it would have cost just to install a heating system, let alone to run it. So, we then took the saved money plus another $6,000—$1.50 a square foot—and used it to save, among other things, 90 percent of the household's electricity. So, if we bought that instead of making it with solar, it would cost five bucks a month. And that's with 1983 technologies that pay for themselves in the first ten months. If we did it today, the house would cost less than normal to build. With even greater efficiency, the household electric would be only about two bucks a month worth.
GELLERMAN: Have you upgraded your house since you built it?
LOVINS: Yeah, in fact, we're doing that right now. We're in the middle of the fifth lighting retrofit, the first daylighting retrofit. We've just upgraded the windows so they insulate like 14 sheets of glass, or, in one case, 19. And the technology continues to improve faster than we use it. It's like the low-hanging fruit keeps mushing up around the ankles, and spilling over the tops of our waders, and the innovation tree keeps pelting our head with more fruit.
GELLERMAN: What, if any, creature comforts are you missing?
LOVINS: None. We have all modern conveniences, but we use very efficient lighting, a lot of daylighting. In fact, we're just adding some daylighting. And we have all the normal kitchen appliances. But we get our space and water heating 99 percent from solar, and we designed the house so it also keeps itself cool so we don't need air conditioning. Although, if we did, we would need very little, even in a hot climate. A friend of mine in Bangkok built a house actually modeled on ours, and it uses a tenth of normal air conditioning energy to get better comfort at the same construction costs.
GELLERMAN: Now, I have those spiral, fluorescent efficient bulbs in my house. My house is pretty well insulated, but I'm a mere mortal. How can I achieve a negawatt life?
LOVINS: Well, whenever you buy something that uses electricity, buy it very thoughtfully. If it's a major appliance, go to aceee.org—American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy—and look up their list of the most energy-efficient appliances, get one of those.
For example, my refrigerator uses eight percent and my freezer 15 percent of the normal amount of electricity, and then make sure you turn off stuff you're not using. A substantial fraction—some people think about a fifth--of the electricity drawn by a typical house is stuff that's turned off but still keep sipping juice. Those are called vampire loads so we need to kill them off.
GELLERMAN: What do you think it will take to make conservation efficiency the bedrock of our energy future?
LOVINS: There's a rapidly spreading trend that I think will make this a general practice and not just in a handful of states. That's called decoupling insured savings. What it means is you decouple the utility's profits from how much energy it sells so it's no longer rewarded for selling more and it's no longer penalized for selling less. And then, if they do something smart to cut your bill like helping you get more efficient, you let them keep a small part, maybe a tenth of the savings as extra profits so that your and their incentives are entirely aligned. This has a miraculous effect on utility behavior.
GELLERMAN: So, is the electric utility sending you a check?
LOVINS: The electric utility sends me a small check for the extra solar electricity I make that's more than I require from the part of the building – the office end – that does interact with the grid. The household, I just make it, put it in a big bunch of nickel-iron batteries, and then uses it as needed. I never run out.
GELLERMAN: Now, you're in Hawaii right now. Are you able to take your energy efficient lifestyle with you there?
LOVINS: I'm staying at a friend's house that uses almost no energy and many people around here use solar power. You know, they're up in the hills. It's very interesting what happens in the most oil dependent state when people suddenly realize that it's a lot easier and cheaper not to buy the oil in the first place.
GELLERMAN: Amory Lovins is the founder, chairman, and chief scientist at the Rocky Mountain Institute of Snowmass and Boulder, Colorado. Mr. Lovins, thank you very much.
LOVINS: My pleasure.
She pointed out that Austin's energy-savings goal is twice that of San Antonio.
Such a strategy helps ratepayers lower their own bills.
"There's so much that can be done in the older neighborhoods of San Antonio," she said.
Promising that the mayoral wannabe has sustainability concepts in her repertoire
For any others hoping to assume the position throne, I would suggest some schooling at the Post Carbon Institute.
Seeing as we live in one of the most vulnerable regions of the country when it comes to energy and climate issues, at minimum all council members should be reading the institute's book Post-Carbon Cities: Planning for Energy and Climate Uncertainty.
Herrera said conversations are already underway regarding future building codes needed to create new hyper-efficiency in our homes. "I'm very disappointed to learn we have not had more of an efficiency plan in place. I'm not one to do things because the political climate is there, we want to look into the future. We want to look ahead and plan ahead. That's what business people do."
For their part, CPS officials say they have begun talking with Austin Energy about possibly partnering in a solar thermal (research) power plant in West Texas, but didn't believe solar costs have come down enough to make it feasible. And with consistent prodding throughout last Thursday's meeting, the pledged to go back to their offices and "look at it."
Even Mayor Phil Hardberger's impassioned plea to support CPS couldn't pull the votes needed to make it happen, which split 6-5 against the 5 percent. A second motion for 3.5 percent passed unanimously.
Entering this period of economic uncertainty coupled with a budget deficit requires city leaders to plan a way forward in incredibly tough circumstances.
Here's what other cities are doing.
For more on negawatts, check out Lovins' Rocky Mountain Institute.
Specifically, check out this resolution passed in Austin a year ago setting up a task force to study the risks posed by rising oil prices... Think we need some (clear) minds working on this (outside CPS, perhaps) and reporting back to our button-pushing Council?
It reads in part:
2. the City Manager is directed to create an Energy Depletion Risks Task Force to assess the City's exposure to diminishing supplies of oil and natural gas and to make recommendations to address any vulnerabilities that may result;
3. the Task Force shall be composed of representatives of those City departments affected by oil and gas depletion as well as community and business leaders, and the City Manager shall report the makeup of the Task Force to City Council within eight weeks;
4. the Task Force's charge shall be to:
a. acquire and study current and credible data and information on the issues of oil and natural gas production and depletion and the related economic and societal implications;
b. seek community and business input on the proposed planning and response measures;
c. coordinate with appropriate county, state, and federal agencies;
d. develop recommendations for the City Council to include in the City's long term strategic planning with respect to strategies the City can take to mitigate the impacts of declining energy supplies in areas including, but not limited to, transportation, business and home energy use, water, food security, health care, communications, land use planning, and wastewater treatment; and
e. propose methods for educating the public about this issue in order to create proactive behavior change among businesses and residents and reduce dependence on fossil fuels;
f. issue its final report to City Council on these matters within nine months of the date of this resolution;
Support Local Journalism.
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. Our readers helped us continue this coverage in 2020, and we are so grateful for the support.
Help us keep this coverage going in 2021. Whether it's a one-time acknowledgement of this article or an ongoing membership pledge, your support goes to local-based reporting from our small but mighty team.
Join the San Antonio Press Club for as little as $5 a month.