The San Antonio City Council's message to city-owned CPS Energy, last
week's approval of a 3.5 percent rate hike (to be delayed until AFTER
this summer) rather than the requested 5 percent, approaches very
closely a vote of no confidence in the utility.
What will we get for the 3.5? We don't know. CPS officials were
totally unprepared to discuss such a thing. I mean, they came for 5.
In their build-up, most councilmembers took a breath between questions
to stress that they don't want anybody messin' with our efficiency or
renewable energy portfolios — unless it's to expand them.
CPS, you may recall was gunning for a 5 percent rate increase to help
cover costs of putting scrubbers on its coal plants, finish up a new
coal plant, and invest in investing in new nuclear power plants.
Community members demanded Council demand CPS strip the nuke aspect
(CPS say: <1%) out of the equation. So it was done.
Then there was a period of poor communication, hacking off members of
the council. One told me it was like playing a "shell game" trying to
data from CPS.
District Three Councilmember Jennifer
Ramos complained the rate increase will particularly hurt the
lowest-income residents of SA.
"These older homes don't have any type of insulation… My
families will be looking at possibly a 10- to 12-dollar monthly
increase," Ramos said. "At 3.5, I think it's a good compromise."
Which is an important point to the efficiency clique crowding the
chambers for much of the day. Not only do poorly insulated homes
hurt their owners in high bills, but by wasting tremendous amounts of
energy they also push CPS to build more power plants at incredible
costs. (Current best estimates have placed twin nukes around
$17 billion, about $10 billion more than CPS partner NRG
Energy has previously suggested.)
"I also learned a lesson from my mom, that you don't always get what
you ask for," said Councilman Justin
Ramos added that requested new efficiency/sustainable energy studies
are "not negotiable" in the shifting landscape. "Certainly, the CPS
board, since they are appointed by council, are listening," she said.
Cibrian added that CPS had to learn a new word: "negawatts."
Negawatts is an insider term for efficiency technologies, an
abbreviated form for negative watts, energy saved, tho it started as a
GELLERMAN: So, if
can't make more megawatts how about producing negawatts? The idea of the
negawatt conserving energy through greater efficiency
started out as a typo – an "n" in place of an "m". Energy
activist Amory Lovins came across the mistake in a Colorado Public
Utilities Commission report. The goof caught his fancy, and may help us
power our future.
founded the Rocky Mountain Institute, a think tank that
focuses on energy issues. He was in Hawaii when I caught up with him by
phone and asked him about the negawatt.
LOVINS: A negawatt
is electricity that's saved by using it more
efficiently or at a smarter time. So, you don't need to produce it to
get the same hot showers, cold beer, or other effect that you want.
you've been living in a negawatt world for what
– 25 years now?
LOVINS: Yeah. I live
up in the Rockies, and the first thing we did was
insulate it so well that it uses only about one percent of the normal
amount of heating energy, and that comes from a couple of
occasionally-run wood stoves, because you've got to burn the energy
somehow. And then it also made the house eleven hundred bucks cheaper
to build because super installation and super windows cost eleven
hundred bucks less to put in than it would have cost just to install a
heating system, let alone to run it. So, we then took the saved money
plus another $6,000—$1.50 a square foot—and used it
to save, among other things, 90 percent of the household's electricity.
So, if we bought that instead of making it with solar, it would cost
five bucks a month. And that's with 1983 technologies that pay for
themselves in the first ten months. If we did it today, the house would
cost less than normal to build. With even greater efficiency, the
household electric would be only about two bucks a month worth.
GELLERMAN: Have you
upgraded your house since you built it?
LOVINS: Yeah, in
fact, we're doing that right now. We're in the middle
of the fifth lighting retrofit, the first daylighting retrofit. We've
just upgraded the windows so they insulate like 14 sheets of glass, or,
in one case, 19. And the technology continues to improve faster than we
use it. It's like the low-hanging fruit keeps mushing up around the
ankles, and spilling over the tops of our waders, and the innovation
tree keeps pelting our head with more fruit.
GELLERMAN: What, if
any, creature comforts are you missing?
LOVINS: None. We
have all modern conveniences, but we use very
efficient lighting, a lot of daylighting. In fact, we're just adding
some daylighting. And we have all the normal kitchen appliances. But we
get our space and water heating 99 percent from solar, and we designed
the house so it also keeps itself cool so we don't need air
conditioning. Although, if we did, we would need very little, even in a
hot climate. A friend of mine in Bangkok built a house actually modeled
on ours, and it uses a tenth of normal air conditioning energy to get
better comfort at the same construction costs.
GELLERMAN: Now, I
have those spiral, fluorescent efficient bulbs in my
house. My house is pretty well insulated, but I'm a mere mortal. How
can I achieve a negawatt life?
whenever you buy something that uses electricity, buy it
very thoughtfully. If it's a major appliance, go to aceee.org—American
Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy—and look up their
list of the most energy-efficient appliances, get one of those.
For example, my
refrigerator uses eight percent and my freezer 15
percent of the normal amount of electricity, and then make sure you
turn off stuff you're not using. A substantial fraction—some
people think about a fifth--of the electricity drawn by a typical house
is stuff that's turned off but still keep sipping juice. Those are
called vampire loads so we need to kill them off.
GELLERMAN: What do
you think it will take to make conservation
efficiency the bedrock of our energy future?
LOVINS: There's a
rapidly spreading trend that I think will make this a
general practice and not just in a handful of states. That's called
decoupling insured savings. What it means is you decouple the utility's
profits from how much energy it sells so it's no longer rewarded for
selling more and it's no longer penalized for selling less. And then,
if they do something smart to cut your bill like helping you get more
efficient, you let them keep a small part, maybe a tenth of the savings
as extra profits so that your and their incentives are entirely
aligned. This has a miraculous effect on utility behavior.
GELLERMAN: So, is
the electric utility sending you a check?
LOVINS: The electric
utility sends me a small check for the extra solar
electricity I make that's more than I require from the part of the
building – the office end – that does interact with
the grid. The household, I just make it, put it in a big bunch of
nickel-iron batteries, and then uses it as needed. I never run out.
you're in Hawaii right now. Are you able to take your
energy efficient lifestyle with you there?
LOVINS: I'm staying
at a friend's house that uses almost no energy and
many people around here use solar power. You know, they're up in the
hills. It's very interesting what happens in the most oil dependent
state when people suddenly realize that it's a lot easier and cheaper
not to buy the oil in the first place.
Lovins is the founder, chairman, and chief scientist
at the Rocky Mountain Institute of Snowmass and Boulder, Colorado. Mr.
Lovins, thank you very much.
LOVINS: My pleasure.
is going to be a very important term in the future of San Antonio,"
Cibrian said. "I believe the community needs a paradigm shit toward
conservation and efficiency … I have asked CPS to seriously
move up your goal."
She pointed out that Austin's energy-savings goal is twice that of San
Such a strategy helps ratepayers lower their own
"There's so much that can be done in the older neighborhoods of San
Antonio," she said.
Promising that the mayoral wannabe has sustainability concepts in her
For any others hoping to assume the position
throne, I would suggest
some schooling at the Post
Herrera said conversations are already underway regarding future
building codes needed to create new hyper-efficiency in our
homes. "I'm very disappointed to learn we have not had more of an
efficiency plan in place. I'm not one to do things because the
political climate is there, we want to look into the future. We want to
look ahead and plan ahead. That's what business people do."
For their part, CPS officials say they have begun talking with Austin
Energy about possibly partnering in a solar thermal (research) power
plant in West Texas, but didn't believe solar costs have come down
enough to make it feasible. And with consistent prodding throughout
last Thursday's meeting, the pledged to go back to their offices and
"look at it."
Even Mayor Phil
Hardberger's impassioned plea to support CPS couldn't pull
the votes needed to make it happen, which split 6-5 against the 5
percent. A second motion for 3.5 percent passed unanimously.
Entering this period of economic uncertainty coupled with a budget
requires city leaders to plan a way forward in incredibly tough
Specifically, check out this resolution passed in Austin a year ago
setting up a task force to study the risks posed by rising oil
prices... Think we need some (clear) minds working on this (outside
CPS, perhaps) and
reporting back to our button-pushing Council?
It reads in part:
1. the Austin City Council
supports the undertaking of a City-wide assessment study to inventory
city activities and their corollary resource requirements, and to
evaluate the impact of a decline in petroleum and natural gas
availability in each area, with the aim of developing a comprehensive
energy depletion risk assessment and action plan;
2. the City Manager
is directed to create an Energy Depletion Risks
Task Force to assess the City's exposure to diminishing supplies of oil
and natural gas and to make recommendations to address any
vulnerabilities that may result;
3. the Task Force
shall be composed of representatives of those City
departments affected by oil and gas depletion as well as community and
business leaders, and the City Manager shall report the makeup of the
Task Force to City Council within eight weeks;
4. the Task Force's
charge shall be to:
a. acquire and study
current and credible data and information on the issues of oil and
natural gas production and depletion and the related economic and
b. seek community
and business input on the proposed planning and response measures;
c. coordinate with
appropriate county, state, and federal agencies;
recommendations for the City Council to include in the City's long term
strategic planning with respect to strategies the City can take to
mitigate the impacts of declining energy supplies in areas including,
but not limited to, transportation, business and home energy use,
water, food security, health care, communications, land use planning,
and wastewater treatment; and
e. propose methods
for educating the public about this issue in order to create proactive
behavior change among businesses and residents and reduce dependence on
f. issue its final
report to City Council on these matters within nine months of the date
of this resolution;