Robert Rivard: A new energy economy in S.A. could be the next big thing


Robert Rivard
San Antonio Express

The refurbished Pearl Stable was a fitting venue for last week's celebration of Bill Sinkin, a visionary who at age 95 continues to imagine a better city.

The Pearl Brewery campus itself has become the most visible symbol of sustainability in a part of the city undergoing its own rebirth.

Sinkin's resume is too long and too well known to review here, but the man who helped convince San Antonio it could host a World's Fair in 1968 now wants us to believe solar power can be a big part of the city's energy future.

It's a good time to believe.

Sinkin isn't getting any younger. It would be nice for our elected leaders and the business community to repay his life's work with a clear signal that we get it.

More importantly, we find ourselves in a time and place when all the elements are coming together. Big change has a chance in San Antonio.

Oil and gas prices with no seeming ceiling are bringing many otherwise indifferent people to the point of understanding the oil economy is a house of cards.

Now is the time for San Antonio to join other communities seeking to design and build a better model.

Solar energy should be part of that new model.

The Pearl, a blend of the old and the new, will soon boast the largest solar project in Texas with the completion of the Full Goods Building, a remarkable development and a first for our city in leading the way in Texas alternative energy development.

The public sector needs to follow, then lead.

There are hundreds of millions of dollars' worth of construction projects on the drawing boards, especially if you count Fort Sam Houston, already the site of one large solar project.

Architects, engineers and some progressive developers and redevelopers are ready to design and build public buildings and private residences that are more energy efficient to the point of being self-sufficient. All they need are clients.

Steven Strong, a solar energy pioneer and recognized national authority, pointed out during his keynote speech at the Sinkin luncheon that leadership, not technology, is the impediment to real change.

But San Antonio's leadership has become increasingly progressive, willing to take risks, to make difficult changes, to convince the public to think bigger.

The recent venue tax election, in which a small but committed electorate approved by overwhelming majorities new levels of investment in the city's smart redevelopment, is evidence that people are willing to support big change.

What's next?

A serious and sustained public conversation. The only issue that equals the energy discussion in terms of importance is education.

Rather than simply consider an acceleration of solar pilot projects partly funded with federal grants, the city, the county, all of the school districts and the leading corporate entities should come to the table and together agree to conduct a citywide self-assessment.

Here is a suggested agenda: Change is imperative, and the time is now.

While we explore all alternative energy sources, including solar and nuclear power, we also should get busy reducing our overall consumption.

Here are a few things we can do starting now:

  • Start over with light rail. San Antonio needs a public transportation system that is more than buses. We need a system that attracts riders in all socioeconomic groups.
  • Experiment with free bus ridership in select congested areas. Imagine one day a week when all downtown-bound riders who board buses north of Loop 1604 ride free. A bus ride is free in downtown Seattle, a policy that has significantly reduced rush-hour vehicle traffic into the central city.
  • Create tax incentives for businesses and homeowners who retrofit existing buildings and homes with alternative energy systems, or who adopt such systems in new construction.
  • Conduct a nationwide review of best practices already under way in other cities.
  • Adopt a mandatory citywide recycling program that includes public recycling receptacles everywhere individual trash receptacles are now located. Include businesses.
  • Implement a real bike grid on city streets so more people can park their vehicles and safely commute on bicycles.
  • Offer incentives to Toyota to convert its manufacturing plant here from Tundras to hybrids. The move will protect jobs as sales of gas guzzlers fall and demand grows for energy-efficient vehicles.

More and more people here understand that the endless pursuit of oil reserves at all costs is not a viable or sustainable course for the future.

Everything seems right for the city to act. For that, we should thank Bill Sinkin, a wise old man who still thinks young.

Robert Rivard is editor of the Express-News. E-mail him at rrivard @ express-net.

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