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Scrapbook: Big Grassroots Coal Victory Deep in the Heart of Texas

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June 24, 2011

Big Grassroots Coal Victory Deep in the Heart of Texas


On June 20, San Antonio Mayor Julian Castro (above, second from right) announced that not only will the city shut down its 900-megawatt Deely coal-fired power plant by 2018, but the city plans to replace the power with a combination of traditional sources such as natural gas, renewable energy—including solar—and energy efficiency.

"San Antonio's decision to phase out the Deely coal plant signals the beginning of the end of the coal-burning era and its associated air pollution and illness in Texas," says Eva Hernandez of the Sierra Club's Beyond Coal campaign. That's Hernandez at left, above.

To Hernandez' right are Sierra Club Alamo Group volunteers Carolyn Wells, Dave Wells, and Karen Seal, CPS Energy CEO Doyle Beneby, Alomo Group activist Loretta Van Coppenolle, Jefferson Heights Neighborhood Association President Charles English, Henrietta English, Mayor Castro, and Alamo Group volunteer leader Russell Seal.

The Deely plant, below, will be the first coal-fired power plant in Texas to close.


CPS Energy, the municipal utility, has already invested in a 14-megawatt solar photo-voltaic 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," says Mary Anne Hitt, national director of the Beyond Coal Campaign.

"This was a huge effort driven largely by the local Alamo Group and a few other key partners like the SEED Coalition and Public Citizen," says Hernandez. "Essentially there was an agreement for the city of San Antonio to install scrubbers on the Deely coal plant, but Mayor Castro and Chief Beneby of CPS Energy proposed that they shut down Deely instead and replace it with clean energy that will bring up to 1,000 new jobs to San Antonio!

"But it wasn't that easy," she adds. "Russell and Loretta worked tirelessly to keep pressure on the city council and mayor."

"This was years in the making," says Russell Seal. "The big thing here is not just shutting down the coal plant, but changing the dialogue from supplying energy at the lowest cost to a philosophy of providing competitively priced energy with environmental considerations. This is a huge shift in philosophy."

Seal says the work on this campaign started several years ago when CPS Energy announced it was planning to invest in a proposed nuclear power plant. Following extensive Sierra Club activist involvement opposing that plan, the news eventually broke that CPS officials had lied about the true cost of investing in a nuclear plant.

The city sent those CPS officials packing and brought in a new team more willing to consider cleaner and safer 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's Lone Star Chapter.

San Antonio community activists from the Sierra Club, Public Citizen, Environment Texas, the 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.
"Working with such a broad coalition was crucial," Seal says, "as was pointing out the real effects of coal power. Seal, a pharmacist, used one city council meeting to put a face on the problems with coal in the city. "It's 104 degrees outside and we're running out of inhalers and asthma medicine—we don't need the coal industry's help selling inhalers," he told the council. The council knew there was a health care problem here, he says, but this opened their eyes.

Reed used another city council presentation to show how the city could use clean energy to meet its needs. "These presentations and meetings with city officials kept producing positive results," he says. "And when CPS' new CEO Doyle Beneby started the job, 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, Beneby 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 percent renewable electricity standard.

Reed, Seal, Hernandez, and Alamo Group activists were thrilled to hear such positive clean energy comments come from Beneby during last week's announcement by Mayor Castro. "We want to make San Antonio the hub of the new energy economy," said Beneby, citing electric vehicles, energy efficiency, and other examples of clean energy.

"That's an amazing statement from the head of an agency that recently had leaders who ardently supported nuclear power," says Mary Anne Hitt.

"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," says Reed, "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."

Seal and Reed credit the tireless work of Alamo Group volunteers, especially Loretta Van Coppenolle, whom they called the "hero" of the campaign.

While work continues with San Antonio's leaders in getting the city to fully embrace clean energy, Seal says it is the local grassroots activists who will keeping making the critical difference. That's his advice for other communities facing similar coal battles.

"That's my advice for other communities facing similar coal battles," he says. "You have to get involved. 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," says Hitt. "I've seen it across the nation time and time again. It gets noticed, too. Just look at EPA 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. 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."

Within days of the announcement, the city had received more than 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," says Hitt. "Congratulations, San Antonio activists. Here's to many more grassroots clean energy victories across the U.S."


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