Guerra: CPS Energy could save megawatts, money by focusing on efficiency


Carlos Guerra
San Antonio Express-News

More Americans now understand that the foundation upon which we have built our civilization - cheap fossil fuels - is unsustainable. We must prepare now for a future very different - and far more crowded - than our current reality.

This is why one question San Antonio's City Council faces - and the city-owned CPS Energy faced earlier - is so important.

But while all three presidential hopefuls agree with forward-thinking Americans in trumpeting the potential of "green technologies," CPS' leadership is still trying to convince us that our energy future leaves us only two choices: to expand our reliance on 20th-century coal-fired power plants or to double 1960s-era nuclear reactors.

Last week, CPS leaders asked the council to approve a 5 percent utility rate hike that will increase the average monthly bill $6 to $7. But CPS CEO Milton Lee said more rate hikes will come over the next decade. Mayor Phil Hardberger correctly said that we must prepare to meet the demand of a city that will keep growing rapidly.

Until now, CPS has been relatively well-managed - with one glaring exception, the South Texas Nuclear Project that came on line years late and at five times its original price tag.

And CPS does provide energy at rates other cities envy by generating electricity through a diversified mix of fuels that includes natural gas, fuel oil, coal, nuclear fission and, now, wind.

But CPS Energy's most recent rate-hike request is very bothersome because it shows little such vision at the top.

In addition to the new coal-fired plant at Lake Calaveras CPS is building, the utility wants to spend $206 million on a study to justify doubling STNP's generation capacity by adding two more reactors.

The price tag on the reactors is still undisclosed, but "ball park" figures have ranged from the $6 billion it would cost when it was first mentioned, to the $8 billion now being bandied about. Outside experts and Moody's Investor Service, on the other hand, peg the cost at closer to $16 billion in 2008 dollars.

But are dirty coal and dangerous nuclear material really the only choices we have?

Attorney Lanny Sinkin, a San Antonio native who is now advising the Sustainable Energy and Economic Development (SEED) Coalition on this issue, offers other alternatives.

"The real questions are: What are the alternatives? and In what order do you pursue them?" Sinkin says. "The consensus among utilities around the country is the first choice is energy efficiency. We waste so much energy that if you invest in efficiency with things like attic fans and weather stripping and that kind of stuff, you can save lots of energy."

In 2004, he points out, a CPS-commissioned study concluded that the utility could reduce demand by 1,220 megawatts by retrofitting 50,000 homes with simple energy-efficiency features.

At the time, Laura Compton, CPS supervisor of forecasting and pricing, disputed the savings, saying that since CPS planned to spend only $25 million over the next decade on such measures, it would only save about 38 megawatts.

"It costs about $4,000 to retrofit an existing home," Sinkin says. So, if instead of spending $206 million on a study to justify spending unknown billions on nuclear reactors, 51,500 homes could be made energy-efficient.

If KEMA, the international energy consulting firm CPS hired to do the 2004 study is correct, such a retrofit would save more than 1,200 megawatts of electricity. If, on the other hand, CPS drops billions on the nuclear expansion, it will get 1,350 additional megawatts.

"And if the city changes its building codes to require homes to be energy-efficient," Sinkin says, "it is way cheaper to build an energy-efficient home when you're building from the ground up than retrofitting."

So, the real question is: Why are we even arguing about this?

To contact Carlos Guerra, call (210) 250-3545 or e-mail cguerra @

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