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CPS, Sprawl and Solar: SA's sustainable report card

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The 40 MW Alamo 1 in South San Antonio - OCI SOLAR
  • OCI Solar
  • The 40 MW Alamo 1 in South San Antonio
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Living in the Sprawl

These are the good numbers, the diverse energy sources that keep monthly bills cheap. "The key for me is diversification," says Elnakat, associate professor of research at the UTSA Texas Sustainable Energy Research Institute. "If you diversify one source, if it goes wrong or if it becomes expensive or if something happens, it doesn't penetrate your system. There's other things to back it up."

But, as CPS marches toward a promising energy future, the city is chained to the symbiotic weights of sprawl and poor air quality. According to their 2011-2013 Energy Sustainability Report, CPS covers 1,515 square miles of service, an area just 40 square miles smaller than Rhode Island. Though CPS has made true strides in renewable energy, spreading this electricity across a rambling metro area dilutes efficiency and environmental benefits.

With no natural barriers to the growth north of Loop 1604, demand for new housing in the area is likely to expand with the population of Bexar County. By 2050, the county is expected to gain 1 million new residents. If the growth occurs farther north, that means more water and electricity infrastructure, lawns to water, pets to feed and, critically, more miles to drive.

In commute, chores and recreation, SA drivers travel 27 miles per capita per day. As total mileage increases with more drivers on the road, SA may lose its footing as the only major American city on par with the EPA's clean air attainment status. Since 2012, SA's ozone readings have been above the EPA-determined 75 parts per billion level. If the EPA changes their standards in their 2017 review period, San Antonio would become a city in non-attainment, facing possible sanctions.

At the individual level, the dirty air impact is more immediate. In vulnerable populations, like asthma, allergy and tuberculosis sufferers, increased ozone levels can worsen respiratory issues. "All the particulate matter, which is basically dust, doubles-down with allergens," says Elnakat. "Because of our erratic weather patterns, not just in San Antonio, but globally, the germination and pollination of plants has changed quite a bit. The plant doesn't know if it's summer or winter, so it keeps producing that pollen." If air quality worsens, expect the carpet-bombing of cedar pollen to aggravate future springs.

Eyes on the Prize: SA in 2040

The question of longterm sustainability is really a question of urban planning: How can San Antonio achieve efficiency without disrupting quality of life?

For City Council, the answer is in the constituency. Like the SA 2020 initiative—culled together from community interests—the comprehensive plan for 2040 will gauge the needs of SA citizens. Announced first in August, the comprehensive plan should be ready by early 2016.

For Nirenberg, the process is as important as the plan. "We have to think longterm, we have to really work hard to establish a sustainable process," he says. "I use that word sustainable deliberately. We have to establish a process where stakeholder involvement and citizen participation remain the fundamental building block of the plan. Because we know that in 20 years, there will be different goals, different ideas about what we can do with the resources that we have. But if we have the process in place, people will still be invested in the comprehensive plan and we can evolve how we work."

In the meantime, CPS and the City work to reduce environmental impact. As clean sources become more vital to SA's energy equation, CPS slashes at the other side of the equal sign to reduce demand.

According to their Save for Tomorrow Energy Plan (S.T.E.P.), CPS will reduce peak demand (the maximum hour of energy use) by 771 megawatts, about the equivalent of a coal power plant. To do so, they'll be investing in efficient infrastructure and a smart grid.

"For 100 years, we had a grid that only goes one way," says Tracy Hamilton. "We produce power, we send it through the lines to your house. Now, we're working on creating a network where you can send solar back the other way. Not only are we looking at building a modern grid but looking at it as more of a network."

This network will link individual solar units back to the power grid, allowing a two-way energy exchange for buildings with small solar rigs. Already, San Antonio has close to 20 MW of rooftop solar, the largest number of any city in Texas. And with their impending community solar program and pilot rooftop programs, CPS plans to expand these urban micro-farms.

Ideal for renters or homes in permanent shade, the community solar program operates like a timeshare. First, a contractor creates a nearby solar farm on CPS property. "And then you could buy a share of it, two panels worth or 10 panels worth," says Hamilton. "The power that the system creates, you will get credit based on the share of what you buy."

For those who do own a sunny rooftop but can't afford a solar investment, CPS is preparing its pilot rooftop program to install solar free of upfront cost. With the panels pumping, the homeowner would receive a fixed rate credit on their monthly bill.

But it's not all sun and games. "Let's say you put solar on your roof and zero-out your bill," explains Hamilton. "We still have all the fixed cost of poles and wires. But you now aren't paying that. So how do we get that? We get that from everybody else who doesn't have solar on their roofs. So all the people who don't have solar around you are subsidizing you. If you happen to be fairly wealthy and afford solar, who do you think can't?"

At the end of 2016, the 30 percent federal tax credit for solar installation will sunset. If the credit is not renewed, the future of residential solar may get a lot more expensive, threatening local installation companies (CPS subcontracts to private companies because, as a nonprofit, they cannot tap into the credit).

Energy Adulthood

Too often, sustainability becomes a buzzword. Full of sound, fury and a clean image, sustainability looks good, but packs a light punch when it comes to blows.

By attracting clean tech companies, San Antonio's sustainable punch can gain some real weight. Since CPS can't access renewable subsidies and tax credits, there's growing room for clean companies operating or headquartered in SA. Currently, CPS works with six clean energy companies, four of which are based in San Antonio. With all their projects finished, OCI Solar, the owner and operator of Alamo 1, will create 800 jobs.

And with the 2040 plan, the city can provide a guiding hand for the growth and care of San Antonio's sustainable future. "It's about coming together as a community and deciding who we want to be when we grow up," says Elnakat.

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