Councilman shone in nuclear debate

December 27, 2009

Jan Jarboe Russell
San Antonio Express-News

In 2009, the local political sleeper was – drumroll, please –District 8 Councilman Reed Williams.

Williams was anything but a brand name when he was elected. He’d worked 35 years in the oil industry but wasn’t part of the small clique of local business leaders who regularly influence City Hall.

At 62, Williams has an unassuming demeanor and zero political ambitions. Yet when it came to the debate over expansion of the South Texas Project, he played a critical behind-the-scenes role. He offered expertise and common sense that has made him a key voice in charting the city’s energy future.

He started out inclined to support the nuclear expansion. When he had an interview with the Sierra Club during the campaign, one of the leaders asked where he and the organization would differ.

Since he isn’t a politician by nature, Williams didn’t obfuscate but told the plain truth: "We’ll probably part ways on the nuclear project."
Once elected, he set aside his bias and began to look at the project in a disciplined manner. He and a friend locked themselves away and methodically worked through CPS Energy’s numbers. Williams did not like what he found: The model was too complex, the project was loaded with risks, and NRG, the utility’s partner, had what Williams considered a home-team advantage.

Normally, City Council members depend on briefing sessions from experts to educate them on issues. In other words, they are passive. Williams got active, treating the nuclear deal as if it were his own business deal.

He asked questions that helped define the debate at City Hall and CPS Energy, and he constructed his own financial model for the nuclear expansion, complete with risk analysis. When the estimates for the expansion were at $10 billion, Williams said it made economic sense – barely.

Given the risks, he emerged as Mayor Julián Castro’s most effective ally in urging CPS Energy to sell down its share of the expansion from 40 percent to 20 percent or lower.

Once it became public that CPS Energy withheld a $4 billion increase in the cost estimate – and that number continues to go up – Williams no longer believed the expansion made economic sense. As a speculator, he believes natural gas is a better fix.

After all, a major part of the rationale for the nuclear expansion, that San Antonio would need more generating capacity by 2016, no longer exists. Now, CPS Energy says it won’t need extra capacity until 2023.

"We don’t have to get in a big hurry to find another source," drawled Williams, who is given to folksy talk. "We can just sit on our rear ends awhile."

Beyond his influence on the most important local issue of 2009, Williams offers a new model of leadership. He’s proof that you don’t have to be a household name, have a long track record in politics or have a fixed agenda to change things.

Too often in San Antonio, the tendency is to rely on the same cast of characters – seasoned politicians and activists, well-connected business people, paid lobbyists – to solve problems.

Maybe we need more rookies.

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