Shared from the 11/14/2021 San Antonio Express eEdition

City’s plan on climate might see more action

Staff file photo

CPS Energy coal-fired power plants J.K. Spruce, middle and right stacks, and Deely, now retired, are shown. The Spruce plant is one of the biggest contributors to San Antonio’s carbon footprint.

Within the next decade, San Antonio will be much hotter than ever. Climate change has reached Texas, bringing an array of drought and extreme weather, including intense precipitation, that many project will leave the state dealing with constant emergencies in the near future.

San Antonio, like many cities, is seeking changes to do what it can to stem the crisis, but its sense of urgency has been blunted by other crises of the times.

It’s been two years since San Antonio adopted SA Climate Ready, the title of its intensely debated climate action and adaptation plan. After a drawn-out public drafting process that involved nearly 300 events and elicited thousands of comments, the City Council adopted the CAAP in October 2019.

Considered the city’s most ambitious climate plan yet, the nearly 100-page report calls for making the city carbon neutral by 2050 and reducing greenhouse gases by 40 percent by 2030.

Since the plan was adopted, the COVID-19 pandemic has commanded most of the city’s attention for nearly two years and has placed the plan on the back burner. The creation of committees vital to CAAP’s framework was slowed, and once formed, their virtual meetings were not very productive.

While nothing too critical has been derailed, considerable momentum has been lost. No ordinances or policies to further the plan’s goals have been adopted, and officials involved in the CAAP are just now making more tangible moves related to the city’s pending 2022 bond election, climate equity and greenhouse gas emissions.

Nevertheless, officials are hopeful and looking ahead to what’s next for sustainability and climate adaptation in San Antonio.

“There are so many pieces to climate change,” said Doug Mel-nick, the city’s chief sustainability officer. “It’s not just reducing our emissions, but a major piece is how do we make sure that people and systems are preparing for these impacts that we’re seeing now?”

Committee action

The CAAP calls for the creation of two committees that are integral to implementing the plan: the Technical and Community Advisory Committee and the Climate Equity Advisory Committee.

Besides advising the city on priorities and how to implement the plan, the technical advisory group is tasked with providing an annual progress report to the City Council. The equity advisory group is tasked with ensuring “marginalized individuals are included in planning and decision-making,” as well as piloting a “Climate Equity Screening Tool.”

Neither committee, however, was formed until October 2020, a year after the CAAP was adopted. And they have just begun meeting in person after a year of virtual meetings, which some members said were not ideal for getting work done.

Meanwhile, the city’s Office of Sustainability spent much of 2020 focusing on internal aspects of SA Climate Ready, including training and establishing the committees. Such work, Melnick said, includes things such as improving city buildings’ efficiency, developing vehicle procurement and management policies, and training staff and advisory committee members.

Also, the City Council hired a marketing firm to address how the community understands climate change, including getting feedback on people’s awareness and feelings about it. That feedback will be analyzed in January and published in February; the results are expected to help the city implement strategies for mitigation and adaptation.

Going forward, however, there’s much more to be done, Melnick said.

“A lot of little things, I think, have added up to something to move forward from,” he said.

Climate change and the bond

While the city is working to finalize the items in a $1.2 billion bond package that will be presented to San Antonio voters in May, members of the Technical and Community Advisory Committee would like to have seen the CAAP’s goals and principles more integrated into the bond’s framework.

Committee member Kelly Lyons, a biology professor at Trinity University, said it would be great if the bond package — which includes money for drainage, flood control, and parks and recreation — had categorized items focused on the CAAP or on sustainability and climate change.

“We know that every single thing we do to improve our experience or to improve how we’re affected by climate change always increases standard of living,” Lyons said. “It might be expensive to plant trees, but they pull (carbon dioxide) from the atmosphere, and they provide shade. There are only benefits from this kind of work.”

Given that the city isn’t expected to do another bond issue until 2027, not having a hand in shaping the 2022 bond appears to be a missed opportunity for the committee.

Nevertheless, Melnick said the Office of Sustainability has been in conversations about the bond since the beginning and will be involved during the design stage in the spring. Once the bond is finalized, it will be possible to incorporate sustainability in the details for executing it.

“If we’re making improvements to buildings, let’s make them more efficient,” Melnick said. “If we’re focusing on transportation, we could improve roadways, so there’s better flow of traffic, improving air quality and reducing emissions.”

With that idea in mind, the Technical and Community Advisory Committee intends to send a scorecard to a committee evaluating the bond to describe how well each bond initiative aligns with the CAAP. Initiatives will be scored on mitigation, adaptation, sustainability and how they meet the CAAP’s aspirations. The scorecard will be provided to the community with the rest of the bond so residents can see which initiatives score high for climate change mitigation and adaptation and which are lacking.

Lyons cited storm drainage as a good example of this approach.

Drainage issues “can be really helpful for climate change adaptation since we’re going to have heavy flash flooding in the future,” Lyons said. “But that also means more concrete work for the storm drainage systems, which emits so much CO2 into the environment. So if we could adapt some practices, like concrete processes that don’t emit as much CO2, that could be really helpful.”

For Stephen Lucke, also a member of the Technical and Community Advisory Committee and CEO of Gardopia Gardens, being involved with the 2022 bond in some meaningful way is a priority as the CAAP is gaining traction on actionable items.

“After almost a year of meeting virtually, I think there are several main items on the table we’re looking at,” Lucke said. “The first one being the bond.”

Air quality, carbon neutrality

Efforts to refocus attention on the CAAP come as the Environmental Protection Agency considers whether to downgrade Bexar County’s level of nonattainment — a term that reflects the area exceeding the EPA’s limit for ozone concentration.

Ozone pollution, which affects air quality, comes from a combination of heat and sunlight, nitrogen oxide gas released from cars and trucks, and volatile organic compounds from activities such as construction and painting. The mixture can create smog that settles over cities and causes various health problems, including asthma and lung infections.

The area missed the deadline to bring ozone concentration under the federal limit, which was lowered in 2018. As a result, the EPA could downgrade the area’s air quality status from marginal non-attainment to moderate nonattainment, which would trigger additional rules that could increase costs for industry and impose a new emissions testing requirement for vehicles.

Although the CAAP doesn’t specifically refer to attainment as a goal, actions to pursue carbon neutrality are generally aligned with improving air quality.

Any reduction in greenhouse gases will have a positive impact on ozone pollution in San Antonio and its nonattainment status, said Lyle Hufstetler, the natural resources project coordinator at the Alamo Area Council of Governments.

“There’s no case where reducing your greenhouse gases would make ozone worse,” Hufstetler said. “There’s a co-benefit in emission reduction for both the CAAP and nonattainment.”

The issue with Spruce

While SA Climate Ready proposes many strategies to achieve its goal of reaching carbon neutrality by 2050, no consensus was reached while drafting the plan on one of the biggest contributors to San Antonio’s carbon footprint — CPS Energy’s J.K. Spruce Power Plant.

The plant, with its two coal-fired generating units, continues to operate on the Southeast Side as air quality advocates have long called for CPS to retire it. The plant’s two units — Spruce 1 and Spruce 2 — emitted nearly 6 million tons of carbon dioxide combined in 2020, according to the Energy Information Administration, making it the sixth highest in emissions among over 300 power plants in Texas.

Coal plants also emit nitrogen oxides, which add to San Antonio’s ozone pollution.

The Technical and Community Advisory Committee is looking to create a separate committee to focus on reducing greenhouse gases, with an emphasis on Spruce. But there are different voices at the table with varying ideas on what the plant’s future could look like.

Angela Rodriguez, the sustainability director for CPS and a member of the Technical and Community Advisory Committee, said that while there’s a need to move away from fossil fuels, it’s also important to use “all the tools in the toolbox,” such as energy efficiency and conservation.

“Whether it’s retiring the Spruce units early, changing out our natural gas units for renew-ables and energy storage, electric vehicles, all of those efforts, with all of our community partners, is really what’s going to get us to that goal of net zero by 2050,” Rodriguez said.

Energy use in buildings and industry accounts for 48 percent of greenhouse gases in San Antonio, according to the CAAP report. From 2016 to 2019, San Antonio’s greenhouse gases decreased by only 0.2 percent, which was mostly because of an increase in population. But by adding renewables to CPS’ energy sources, introducing energy saving for customers and closing the Deely Coal Power Plant in 2018, the utility reduced its emissions by 10 percent.

For CPS, conversations on Spruce, sustainability and climate change have been pushed aside to varying degrees by the pandemic and February’s winter storm. But Janie Gonzalez, a member of CPS’ board, said that doesn’t mean the utility isn’t still thinking about reducing greenhouse gases.

Under CPS’ Flexible Path Resource Plan, the utility plans to decrease its reliance on coal by 61 percent and increase renewable energy sources by 127 percent by 2040. Spruce 1 is projected to be retired by 2029, and Spruce 2 is slated to be converted to natural gas by 2027. Converting Spruce 2 would cut emissions by 40 percent but could cost CPS $40 million.

Equity and climate change

For Melnick, the CAAP’s goals go beyond reducing emissions; it’s also about ensuring that the entire community benefits from its initiatives and is prepared for what’s coming.

“At the end of the day, it’s all about equity,” Melnick said. “We know that our front-line communities — our communities of color and low-income residents — are going to experience the worst impacts.”

To that end, Adelita Cantu, vice chairwoman of the Climate Equity Advisory Committee and a professor at UT Health San Antonio, said all plans must be evaluated for how well they meet that objective.

San Antonio’s unified development code, which the city is updating, is among the items Cantu’s committee is focused on. The code includes regulations on matters such as zoning, rentals, protecting natural resources and historic preservation.

To tackle this, the Climate Equity Advisory and Technical and Community Advisory committees are considering a list of development code revisions that address sustainability — suggesting new development regulations that target CAAP-influenced goals — and ensuring that the codes are equitable.

At a recent Climate Equity Advisory Committee meeting, Cantu said, city staff asked members whether they thought anything related to equity needed to be in the development codes.

“These are the kinds of things we do with equity in mind,” she said. “We want to make sure any infrastructure will be equitable for the community as a whole, and we’re looking at best practices.”

Elena Bruess writes for the

Express-News through Report for America, a national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms.

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