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Green energy workshop leaves enthusiasm, high expectations in its wake

Jeremy Rifkin blesses his pupils: Aurora Geis, Phil Hardberger, Steve Bartley.

Greg Harman

gharman@sacurrent.com

Jeremey Rifkin has left the building. But his four pillars linger on.

The two-day discussion on the edge of the Hill Country with international sustainability guru Jeremy Rifkin and a variety of his Roundtable members, themselves drawn from across the energy universe (Siemens, GE, Philips, Acciona, IBM, etc.), that concluded yesterday may one day be looked back on as one of the most significant collision of ideas in the history of San Antonio.

Some things are clear. Federal policy is fast changing to address carbon dioxide and future economies are expected to be “low-carbon” ones.

The new energy landscape is mobilized by a variety of factors: The inherent limited nature of non-renewable resources such as oil and gas, geopolitical instability and increasing interest in energy “security,” and the reality climate change being driven by polluting industry.

Under Rifkin's proposal, which CPS Energy adopted earlier this year, utilities adopt four “pillars” of the growing renewable-energy movement, referred to by Rifkin and others as the Third Industrial Revolution.

Those pillars (each of which received a solid three-hour block of dialogue at the workshop) are:

â?¢ Renewable Energy

â?¢ Buildings as Positive Power Plants

â?¢ Hydrogen Storage

â?¢ Smart Grids & Plug-in Vehicles

But even after a wave of innovative ideas and new technology broke at the San Antonio workshop, the question of how to move the city forward within policy, market, and technological limits is still shrouded by a degree of mystery.

Speaking of the many remaining questions lingering at the close of the workshop, Mayor Phil Hardberger compared it to what Christopher Columbus faced when he set out for Asia across the Atlantic.

“He didn't know exactly what he was going to find,” said Hardberger. “He did, in fact, begin a New World.”

“In looking at these four pillars â?¦ you are looking at the future. And we do know that,” Hardberger said. “This is the direction the world is going. We can not afford to do things the old way. The old way is death. The new way is life.”

The workshop follows the positive experience several of the City-owned utility's leaders had exploring Spain's solar energy efforts with Rifkin's team â?? an opportunity to “kick the tires” of the Third Industrial Revolution, as CPS's outgoing CEO Milton Lee (right) told me yesterday afternoon.

While the utility has been shifting its viewpoints and commitments to the emerging, non-polluting energy model, the mayor's office has been equally aggressive, releasing its sustainability plan, Mission Verde, at this year's State of the City address (audio).

Among the most entrenched critics of CPS have been those opposed to its current drive to expand the city's reliance on nuclear energy. Rifkin parried the question yesterday afternoon (see video below) by saying that all modern utilities are deeply enmeshed with polluting and dangerous technologies like coal and nuclear, but that those technologies are “sunsetting.”

He said his team is delivering the message of the Four Pillars, and that CPS should be judged solely on their future actions now that they have received the message.

Don't expect the plan to expand the two-plant South Texas (Nuclear) Project to be dropped over night.

Acting CPS General Manager Steve Bartley openly fretted at several workshop sessions about the higher costs of renewable energies. At a session Monday he openly urged the state to do more to bring prices in line with traditional fuels like coal.

The challenge to Rifkin's Roundtable, which has a strong history advising European leaders (where, unlike the United States, strong federal subsidies exist), is to find more creative ways forward. This will likely mean maximizing relationships within the private sector.

A report is expected back to the City within seven weeks.

There were also some subtle jabs at CPS for its continued position on nuclear power, such as when Angelo Consoli, European Director for Rifkin's consulting operations, alluded to the revolutionary aspect of the coming energy transition, where those “defeated” will be “swept aside.”

“In a revolution, somebody's got to remove them or what's left of them. We've got to know what kind interests are we defending. Who are we standing for? And who are we standing against?” Consoli said. “Yes, I am for nuclear energy too, but this kind of nuclear energy,” he said, gesturing toward a projected image of the burning sun to some chuckles.

Rifkin praised CPS for its enthusiasm about the “European Model” on energy use, but was also inspired to partner with the Alamo City due to its cultural and geographic proximity to Latin America.

That position makes the city even more attractive, both to profit-driven industry and philanthropists hoping to bring affordable, non-polluting power into less developed parts of the world, Rifkin said.

In one presentation, the impact of green power on the economy was in evidence. The renewable power industry, with 6.7 percent of the market in Germany, currently employs 250,000. The remaining 94 percent of traditional energy employs about 270,000, Rifkin said.

“We believe that by partnering with the City we can create a huge economic development possibility,” said Bartley.

The potential to make green on this new model in San Antonio has not been lost on the business community.

At a Great Cities Dialogue dedicated to public policy and San Antonio this morning, Richard Perez, a Hardberger protege and CEO of the Greater San Antonio Chamber of Commerce, said Mission Verde represents one of those mayoral efforts that can not be allowed to drop with the coming changing of the guard after May's election. In fact, the Chamber is preparing to officially endorse the plan, he said.

Green plans don't often gain major business support. But this one, Perez said, “can supply jobs and enhance people's quality of life.”

The Chamber is also preparing a program to teach its member businesses how to save water, electricity, and xeriscape, he added.

Apparently, almost completely beneath the media radar, an intellectual coup d'état has swept San Antonio's power structure. If only the people knew about it.

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