By: Brendan Gibbons
September 25, 2019
At a panel discussion on climate change Monday night, Stephen Hennigan, head of a local credit union that’s building San Antonio’s greenest-ever commercial building, said the conversation is still at the point of “dominantly shaping belief.”
“Once a dominant belief can take hold as a fundamental social value, when it’s fundamentally in the social value system, then every other legitimate organization falls in line,” said Hennigan, CEO of Credit Human and a former CPS Energy board member, of the perception that climate change is an urban matter that needs action now.
“In the middle right now, we have a lot of folks that are not going to be on board because they don’t see it’s the dominant social value system of society just yet,” Hennigan continued.
The urgency of the climate crisis might not be a dominant social value in San Antonio, but the public debate over what to do about climate is more active now than ever. Back-to-back climate change panels on Monday and Tuesday followed rallies and marches over the weekend. The full San Antonio City Council will discuss the latest draft of the City’s Climate Action and Adaptation Plan at its B session meeting on Oct. 2, with a vote scheduled for Oct. 17.
Many are calling the plan a “framework” after changes that took out several of its controversial hard targets, while leaving in place its overall goal of going carbon-neutral by 2050.
Many of the panelists focused on getting down to business at the Monday panel at Weathered Souls Brewing sponsored by Citizens’ Climate Lobby and March For Science SA and the Tuesday panel at Burgerteca put on by Tech Bloc and Big Sun Solar.
Panelists at both events largely focused on energy use in buildings, the largest-emitting sector both on the CPS Energy supply side and the consumer side. The discussion also revolved around transportation, the second-largest source of San Antonio’s greenhouse gas emissions.
“We continue to annex, we continue to build highways with no tolls,” moderator Lew Moorman said on Tuesday, referring to a recently announced 10-lane expansion of Loop 1604 on the city’s sprawling northern fringes. “How does that square with a design that we want [San Antonio] to be carbon-neutral?”
Councilwoman Ana Sandoval (D7) said that the roughly billion dollars in State funding going toward the Loop 1604 expansion “could transform the bicycle infrastructure of this city” or eliminate San Antonio’s sidewalk shortfall.
“The State is never going to give San Antonio a billion dollars for a bicycle network unless something changes at a state level,” Sandoval said, urging attendees to get their friends and family out to vote.
Sandoval, a second-term council member who has made the climate plan a chief focus, also called Broadway “the weather vane” of having streets designed for all forms of transport, including bicycles. A recent Broadway design has come under intense scrutiny for its lack of protected bicycle lanes, with only the City Council having the power at this point to make any changes.
“If we do not make the decision that this is the complete street of today, when are we going to make it?” Sandoval asked “When are we going to have more of this kind of money to do it?”
However, most of the talk at both panels centered on San Antonio’s energy challenges. CPS Energy has proven itself a leader in adopting wind and solar power, though it’s struggling over whether it can replace its coal and natural gas power plants quickly enough to meet climate goals without subjecting its customers to electricity price shocks.
Cris Eugster, CPS Energy’s chief operating officer who spoke at both events, said the next three to five years are going to be “very, very interesting,” adding that the Texas power grid is at a “pivotal” state with wind and solar coming online, but no one willing to build large fossil fuel plants. The issue is how the variable energy of wind and solar can be stored for when it’s needed via technology like batteries, he said.
“The challenge, though, is until batteries are in play, you’ve got to have something to firm up that power,” Eugster said. “If we don’t have that firming capacity and we just shut down a bunch of plants, we’ll just have to build a bunch of new plants.”
Eugster added that while CPS Energy has been successful at reducing its customers demand for electricity through smart thermostats, energy efficiency rebates, and other components of its Save For Tomorrow Energy Program, there’s plenty of innovation left on the demand side.
“There’s been very little entrepreneurship in the energy space,” Eugster said.
Speaking to the Tech Bloc audience Tuesday, Doug Melnick, the City’s Chief Sustainability Officer, framed many of the challenges detailed in the climate plan as opportunities for innovation.
“Open the plan, point at the page, and there’s a problem to be solved,” Melnick said.
Robert Miggins, CEO of Go Smart Solar, which is working with CPS Energy on an initiative to allow people to buy solar panels placed on carports around the city, said that realistic discussions of how to get cleaner power need to include cost.
“We’re looking at ways to make solar more affordable, but that’s on a very small scale,” Miggins said. “Fifty year bonds on a coal plant, that’s a massive thing. Shutting that down early is very, very expensive. I think we should all be thinking about [whether] we would be willing to pay more for power at home, knowing that it was advancing this thing that we all generally agree with.”
Speaking on Monday night, former Mayor Phil Hardberger talked about the Mission Verde initiative spawned during his time as mayor from 2005 to 2009 that was about trying to make San Antonio the “center of the environmental universe.” Mission Verde was an important launching point for CPS Energy’s transition away from dirtier forms of energy, though its promise has faded over the years.
“The environmental movement has moved forward, but I’m sorry to say that we have slowly but surely dropped behind many other cities in making the parts, the machine that we needed,” Hardberger said. “It’s a bittersweet story, but it was a very exciting time in my life, and we almost caught the golden ring.”
For many of the youth involved in climate action around the country, including in San Antonio, that kind of belief in a better future will continue to offer hope. Even so, faced with the prospect of a forever-altered climate, many of the youth feel “abandoned,” said Parth Ghawghawe, a 17-year-old Brandeis High School senior who helped organize youth-led climate rallies over the weekend.
“I think we’ll be a lot more conscious,”Ghawghawe said at the Monday panel. “Kids growing up in elementary school right now will hear about the climate crisis, and they’ll look at every single aspect of their lives even more than we are looking right now.”
Brendan Gibbons is the Rivard Report’s environment and energy reporter.