New mayor brings new energy to the nuclear debate

August 9 2009

By Robert Rivard
San Antonio Express-News

Less than 90 days into office, Mayor Julián Castro just demonstrated what a difference four years can make.

Without allowing challenge to escalate into confrontation, Castro quietly pushed top CPS Energy executives to rethink their fixed plan to dramatically expand the city's stake in the South Texas Project nuclear facility.

As a young city councilman, Castro was criticized for flip-flopping on some issues, and many in the business community considered him more foe than friend.

Some of the same people marveled last week at Castro's boldness and his ability to reframe the debate over the city's future energy sources and policies without any recriminations.

Somehow, Castro managed to strike a blow for the everyday ratepayer even as he gained respect among business leaders.

CPS officials intended to purchase a 40 percent interest in the expanded STP, but Castro is pushing for that figure to be cut in half.

It's more than a numbers game.

Until now, CPS leaders have pursued a nuclear expansion plan that would give the publicly owned utility twice the energy supply needed to meet future demand. That would make CPS an increasingly powerful player in the energy resale market, which can be lucrative but also risky, especially if technology breakthroughs make alternative energy sources more affordable.

Making money in market trades can be intoxicating and habit-forming. On the other hand, it's hard to live down a bad bet and a big loss.

Castro had the confidence to say what few others have said publicly or even thought: Generating vast sums of energy for resale is not part of the core mission at CPS, so why engage in risky behavior when it requires a vast upfront capital investment from the ratepayers?

To be fair, Castro isn't the first person to raise such a challenge. Anti-nuclear groups, such as the Austin-based Public Citizen, did so at a recent Express-News Editorial Board meeting and will do so again at the Monday public hearing Castro will host.

And the issue has been raised at meetings of the small but powerful CPS board, notably by the board's two most experienced trustees, chair Aurora Geis and Stephen Hennigan, both of whom happen to be executives at San Antonio Federal Credit Union.

But neither trustee is a household name, which is partly our fault.

Most readers probably are equally unfamiliar with trustees Derrick Howard, executive director of the Bexar County Community Arenas Board, and Homer Guevara, an economics professor at Northwest Vista College, who just joined the CPS board in March.

Geis and Hennigan are seen as more progressive on energy issues and more challenging of CEO Milton Lee and interim General Manager Steve Bartley, while Howard and Guevara are viewed as more supportive of management policies. The four are said to be divided on the continued service of Lee, who announced his retirement, then reversed himself with hopes of staying until September.

That makes Castro, the fifth trustee, the tiebreaker in any deadlock. He's the least experienced member of the board, but if last week is any indication, he will be a force to contend with, someone whose presence should be welcomed by ratepayers and the business community alike.

Robert Rivard is editor of the Express-News. E-mail him at rrivard (at) Or follow him on Twitter at @editorrivard.

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