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June 30, 2011

A True Grassroots Victory in San Antonio

San Antonio Group Shot We're still celebrating last week's announcement by San Antonio Mayor Joaquin Castro that not only will the city shut down its 900 megawatt Deely coal-fired power plant by 2018, but San Antonio plans to replace the power with a combination of traditional sources like natural gas, renewable energy, including solar energy, and energy efficiency.

In fact, CPS Energy, the municipal utility, has already invested in a 14 MW solar PV plant that opened last year, and made a commitment to 20 percent renewable energy by 2020.  Not only is this a victory for clean energy and community health, but it's also an example of some amazing long-term grassroots work by local residents.

"This was years in the making," said Russell Seal of the local Sierra Club Alamo Group. "The big thing here is not just shutting down the coal plant, but changing the dialogue from 'supplying energy as low-cost-as-the-only-factor' to a philosophy about providing competitively priced energy with environmental considerations. This is a huge shift in philosophy."

Seal said the work started several years ago when the city's utility, City Public Service (CPS), had planned on investing in a proposed nuclear power plant. After extensive activist involvement in opposing that plan, the news eventually broke that CPS officials at the time lied about the real costs of investing in a nuclear plant.

The city sent those CPS officials packing and brought in a new team more willing to talk better forms of energy. "We and many others were pushing the city very hard on renewable energy and energy efficiency," said Cyrus Reed, Conservation Director for the Sierra Club Lone Star Chapter.

San Antonio community activists from the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Environment Texas, SEED Coalition, and many other groups worked with the city council over the years to see the problems with coal and the benefits of clean energy.
 
Seal said working with such a broad coalition was crucial, as was pointing out the real effects of coal power. A pharmacist himself, Seal used one city council meeting to put a face on the problems with coal in the city.

"It's 104 degrees outside, we're running out of inhalers and asthma medicine - we don't need the coal industry's help selling inhalers," said Seal at the meeting. They knew there was a health care problem here, he noted, but this opened their eyes.

Reed used another city council presentation to show just how possible it was for the city to use clean energy to meet its needs.

These presentations and meetings with city officials kept producing positive results. When CPS' new CEO started the job (Doyle Beneby) he agreed with activists that it didn't make sense to keep using coal in San Antonio.

Because both of San Antonio's coal plants are so old, the CEO also agreed that it didn't make sense to retrofit the plants with new pollution controls, but rather to shut one down entirely and keep focusing on meeting the city's 20% renewable electricity standard.

Reed, Seal, and the many others activists in San Antonio were thrilled to hear such positive clean energy comments come from Beneby during last week's announcement.

"We want to make San Antonio the hub of the new energy economy," said Beneby during his inspiring speech on June 20th,, who listed electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and more as examples (you can watch the entire announcement event here, skip ahead to the 30 minute mark for the beginning). That's an amazing statement from the head of an agency that recently had leaders who ardently supported nuclear power.

"The new leadership at CPS Energy, the Mayor and the residents of San Antonio deserve credit for rejecting the initial love affair with the proposed nuclear plant, and instead embracing an alternative vision - more wind and solar power, a significant investment in energy efficiency, cutting-edge building codes, and the retirement of Deely.  We hope they can phase out Deely even before 2018," said Reed in a statement after the announcement.

Seal and Reed credit the tireless work of volunteers, especially Loretta Van Coppenolle, who both called a 'hero' and said worked endless hours to make this change happen.

While the work continues with San Antonio's leaders on getting the city to fully embrace clean energy (some still support "clean" coal technologies), Seal said it is the local grassroots activists who will keeping making all the difference. That's his advice for other communities facing similar coal battles.

"You have to get involved in the community," he explained. "A small group of folks can get in there to work with the community and talk to them. You have to get in there, get involved with the City Council, the Mayor, your state reps, and others. Tell them we can do without these old coal plants."

That kind of hard work gets results - I've seen it across the nation time and time again. It gets noticed, too. Look at Environmental Protection Agency Administrator Lisa Jackson's response to the San Antonio coal announcement:

"San Antonio is stepping up to lead Texas and our nation into a clean energy future and proving that investing in innovative technology to protect our health and the environment is also a great way to create jobs. Committing to cleaner sources of power will mean cleaner air for the families in San Antonio and opportunities for San Antonio's workforce," said Jackson.
 
"By sending a strong signal of the local government's support for clean energy, San Antonio attracted innovative American businesses that will create jobs around technology that helps to keep the air clean."

That is certainly true - within days of the announcement, the city had received over 100 proposals from solar companies vying to produce new, clean energy for the city. By investing in renewable energy rather than coal or nuclear power, the city is creating jobs, saving lives, and positioning itself as a national leader in twenty-first century energy innovation.

Congratulations, San Antonio activists. Here's to many more grassroots clean energy victories across the U.S.

-- Mary Anne Hitt, Director of the Sierra Club Beyond Coal Campaign.

Photo: Alamo Group of the Sierra Club, the Lone Star Chapter and Sierra Club's Beyond Coal Campaign volunteers and staff celebrate with San Antonio Mayor Julián Castro (second from right) and CPS CEO Doyle Beneby (back row, second from left).  Photo by Vincent P. McDonald, CPS.

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