Once-cheap energy hurts S.A., report says

Web Posted: 06/11/2008

By Anton Caputo

San Antonio has grown up around cheap power, which leaves the community in a poor position to thrive in a world of $4-a-gallon gas, a worldwide energy crunch and global warming, according to a recent city consultant's report.

In light of that finding, Mayor Phil Hardberger unveiled a multipronged effort Wednesday to reshape the way people use energy and travel in the city, while spurring a local green-building boom to sprout good-paying jobs.

"We don't really have a choice," Hardberger said. "We waste a lot of energy and we drive a lot, and those are not overly consistent with what the future is going to be. So something has got to change."

The mayor's comments, at the City Council's informational session, highlighted some discouraging findings about San Antonio by CNT consulting, a Chicago-based firm that helped Chicago become one of the greenest cities in America.

Among the findings:

  • While CPS Energy offers some of the lowest energy rates in the country, usage is high, making San Antonio a "low-wage, high-waste" economy.
  • San Antonians drive an average of 27 miles per day, putting the city in the top five in the nation and making the average transportation cost for a two-car family $15,310 a year.
  • San Antonio housing prices are low. But many lower-priced homes tend to be farther from employment centers. This makes the city a "drive till you qualify" real estate market, "effectively doubling the price of the home for working families and households, those earning under $50,000 a year."

Hardberger unveiled a number of initiatives to begin tackling the issues.

He formed a sustainable building task force to help write new residential and commercial building codes to conserve energy. The task force, chaired by Ed Kelley, the retired president of USAA Real Estate, should make recommendations by the end of the year.

This effort will work in tandem with CPS Energy's new goal of saving 711 megawatts of power, about the equivalent of that produced by a large power plant, through energy efficiency and conservation over the next 12 years.

Hardberger and County Judge Nelson Wolff will create a task force on transportation to coordinate all area efforts and create a master plan that can help lobbying efforts in Austin and Washington. This is similar to the approach Dallas used to find funding for its light rail system.

The city will also attempt to create investment funds, which could include or be entirely made up of private money, to help rebuild and retrofit neighborhoods' sustainability.

Richard Varn, the city's chief information officer, said these projects could create a new wave of good-paying green construction jobs. City officials are already talking to the Alamo Community Colleges about training workers.

City officials and environmental groups applauded the plan, but several members of the environmental community said they hoped the city's actions matched its rhetoric.

"It's very courageous," said Loretta Van Coppenolle of the Alamo Group of the Sierra Club. "But we hope the vagueness we heard today will be transformed into numbers very soon."

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