San Antonio, it’s time to put the public back in public utilities


Photo by Isabella Briseño

Bella Nieto, Assistant News Editor

All of San Antonio pays their utility bills to CPS Energy; in fact, it’s the nation’s largest municipal natural gas and electric utility company. CPS makes it convenient to pay business or residential utility bills, making it an “out of sight, out of mind” chore, but that’s exactly the problem. San Antonio residents begrudgingly pay their energy bills to CPS with little thought to its enigmatic corporate structure or its environmental degradation.

The Board of Trustees for CPS consists of four board members and Ron Nirenberg, the mayor of San Antonio. Even though each member represents “a portion of the city,” they aren’t elected but rather appointed by other board members who frequently place corporate interests and profit growth over the San Antonians who actually pay the bills.

Board members serve five-year terms, and the City Council approves new appointees, but historically, members of the board have lacked energy and environmental qualifications. Such appointments allude to corporate interests being prioritized over conservation and people.
In addition, the company also has an advisory committee, but this group meets behind closed doors, protected from the Open Meetings Act, which states governmental bodies must conduct meetings openly unless under authorization, and public scrutiny. This system offers an illusion of a just democracy, but this is repugnant when considering the lack of public input in establishing fair energy rates and environmental protection.

Another area in which CPS falls short is in addressing its role in the climate crisis. Currently, CPS and its Board of Trustees have no plans to close down the J.K. Spruce Power Plant, which is the top power plant emitter of carbon dioxide in Texas. Coal burning releases toxic metals and soot, which can both contribute to the development of asthma, chronic bronchitis and lung cancer, with those living the closest to the site of the coal burning at the most risk.

The problems caused by the Spruce Power Plant aren’t just environmental issues, but racial as well. Since San Antonio is one of the most economically segregated cities in the United States, it’s no surprise the south side disproportionately bears the brunt of the company’s environmental malfeasance. Communities of color, the poor and the elderly contribute less to the city’s air pollution, yet they are unjustly impacted the most. In fact, 80% of the population who live within 12 miles of the coal plant are minority communities. The Spruce Power Plant reinforces the deep-rooted inequities in San Antonio, yet CPS remains unchecked by the public, which allows the atrophy of the city’s air quality to continue.

One solution to encourage more public accountability in CPS’ Board of Trustees is to invest in energy democracy. Essentially, instead of the board being appointed by individuals who prioritize profit over people, the board would be elected by the San Antonio citizens who actually bear the weight of unfair rates and environmental injustice. By allowing the board to be elected, San Antonians could actually choose representatives who would advocate for equitable rates while addressing the company’s failings to recognize and prevent climate change. Such an alternative would ensure more public accountability by putting the public back in public utilities.