Rethinking energy

Vicki Vaughan
San Antonio Express-News

Michael Burke has seen our energy future and it's not in a barrel of oil.

Burke, former CEO of San Antonio refiner Tesoro Corp., was running his own venture-capital firm when the hottest ideas in energy production grabbed his attention.

"I was just blown away by what's happening around the world," he said.

Today, Burke, 64, has set aside his work as a venture capitalist to launch the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, a think tank that's drawn intense interest from elected officials, educators, entrepreneurs and developers.

Burke's group wants to shake up the way San Antonio thinks about energy. It wants to boost the city's economy and quality of life by advocating for the best ideas in renewable energy and pushing for energy efficiency.

"We're way behind a lot of cities" in encouraging the use of clean technology and in energy efficiency, Burke said, citing Portland, Ore., and Austin as more forward-thinking.

And the city isn't taking enough advantage of Texas' vast renewable resources - many studies rank the state No. 2 in the nation in solar-energy potential and No. 2 in wind, and Texas has the resources to be a leader in biodiesel production and the use of geothermal energy.

"If you do a weighted average, Texas is No. 1 in renewable energy sources," Burke said. "It's time for us to move forward."

Since Burke founded the forum in March, "the interest level has been incredible," he said. The group now has about 110 participants who meet once a month to hear the latest ideas.

"We won't make policy decisions," Burke says of the forum, "but we will make recommendations to the mayor, to CPS Energy and maybe SAWS."

"Mike Burke is an outstanding leader with a big-picture mentality," Bexar County Commissioner Tommy Adkisson said. "Traditional energy sources are not going to be our main sources of energy long term. If we don't get a jump on this, we could experience a devastating blow to this country."

For now, the forum is in a learning stage. And that's what prompted Joe McKinney, vice chairman of Broadway Bank, to join the group.

"I like learning new things," McKinney said, "and this is a chance to look at a new industry and new opportunities. Why can't San Antonio be on the leading edge of it? It could become a sweet spot for San Antonio to attract new business."

One of the forum's committees is beginning to take a hard look at what other cities and regions are doing. "If we do this right and use the people in our group, we can take best practices from other cities and bring them to San Antonio," Burke said.

An immediate focus is encouraging energy efficiency, "because we're currently wasting so much energy. With energy efficiency, you get immediate savings," Burke said. So the forum will push for much wider use of programmable thermostats, smart meters, radiant barriers in attics and compact fluorescent light bulbs.

Brenda Vickrey Johnson, president of the consulting engineering firm Vickrey & Associates Inc., joined the forum because "the great cities of the future are going to be those with diversified energy resources," she said. "It's something we need to start working on now."

The forum will devote a lot of time to water use "because you don't talk about energy without talking water," Burke said. "Most people don't realize the tremendous amount of water that's consumed by a coal-fired plant, by a nuclear plant."

Burke said the forum will also encourage "green" building practices.

For example, he said, USAA has stopped using Styrofoam cups in its cafeterias, committed to sending its waste grease to a biodiesel plant and is helping employees organize ride-sharing. The company will talk about what it's doing at the forum's next meeting on Sept. 12.

Burke sees a confluence of efforts between the forum and Solar San Antonio, which advocates the use of solar power in the city. Founder Bill Sinkin said his group and Burke's are related and are working together.

Sinkin and Burke have met with Alamo Community College District officials to talk about how its new administration building on Broadway downtown can incorporate energy-saving methods.

By year's end, the forum hopes to hire a full-time executive director, and it plans to launch a Web site in about six weeks.

And the group wants to establish two funds - one a traditional venture-capital fund to seek investments in promising renewable energy companies and the other a public-private partnership to help people in the inner city conserve energy.

"It would range from the basics to a neighborhood solar plant," Burke said.

By the end of the year, he said, "we want to move from learning to learning ... and doing."

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