Smitty: Austin and San Antonio took different paths when choosing new electric utility management

This is Andy checking in from Vegas and Netroots Nation: sheesh, we leave Texas for a few days and the wheels start to come off the bus, don’t they?  Of course, our fearless and tireless leader, Tom “Smitty” Smith is there to handle everything, as he has done for the last 2 and a half decades.

This ran in today’s Texas Energy Report, but want to give all of our Public Citizen Texas members and followers a taste if you’re not a subscriber to the Energy Report.


An Op-Ed by Public Citizen’s Tom “Smitty” Smith.

The recently announced new general managers for Austin and San Antonio couldn’t be more different, and may have huge economic repercussions for both cities.

Austin has chosen Larry Weis, a “green” general manager from Turlock, California, Irrigation District. San Antonio’s CPS Energy has chosen Doyle N. Beneby Jr., from Exelon Corp. While Mr. Weis opposes nuclear power due to its costs, Mr. Beneby comes from a utility that has the largest nuclear assets in the country.

The process that each city underwent in selecting their new managers stands in stark contrast with one another. Austin announced its finalists over a month ago and invited the public to question the candidates.

CPS kept its candidates secret. In light of this lack of information, I am left to wonder what San Antonio’s fate will be given the recent track record of Exelon. Could Mr. Beneby signal the re-nuclearization of San Antonio or does he represent a future of renewable energy and green power?

Although San Antonio is still reeling from the trebling of cost of expanding the South Texas Nuclear Project, the CPS board has chosen someone from Exelon, which has tried and failed to buy NRG Energy, CPS’s partner in the nuclear expansion project, while simultaneously trying to develop another nuclear plant near Victoria.

While Exelon does have a mix of fossil fuel, hydroelectric, solar, landfill gas and wind generation sources, it only amounts to a meager 7 percent of its generation assets. The other 93 percent is nuclear.

Since the public was not privy to the public utility’s selection process, we are left to speculate what Beneby ‘s plans are.

Will the vision of Mayor Julian Castro and the legacy of former Mayor Phil Hardberger to turn San Antonio into a green city come true, or will San Antonio slip back into the nuclear spiral?

On the bright side, Exelon has a strategy to reduce, offset or displace more than 15 million metric tons of greenhouse gas emissions per year by 2020.  This is an amount greater than the company’s 2001 carbon footprint and equivalent to taking nearly 3 million cars off the road.

On the dark side, most reductions could be through more nuclear power. In addition, Mr. Beneby participated in Exelon’s City Solar, a 10-megawatt solar installation located on a 41-acre brownfield in a Chicago neighborhood – the nation’s largest urban solar power plant, and Exelon has long been known for its energy efficiency programs.

Mr. Weis, on the other hand, has strong green credentials. He has developed strong energy efficiency and renewable energy programs (Weis’ utility has 28 percent renewable energy compared to Exelon’s 1 percent renewable portfolio) and has voiced his concern about global warming and the costs of coal which could force Austin Energy to act sooner than later to shut down its coal plant due expensive pollution control upgrades at the Fayette Power Plant.

The good news is over the last five years, there has been a real collaboration between environmental groups and clean tech companies in Austin around the idea of using renewable energy, energy efficiency and energy storage along with smart grid development as a way to reduce pollution, costs, and the need to build new expensive power plants.

Mr. Weis is the driver to put really smart people from higher education, utility, and high tech industries together to make the products and create the systems necessary for the new clean energy economy and meet our energy needs while creating local wealth.

The choices could not be more different, but both new leaders have the opportunity to choose to develop their utility’s enormous renewable energy and energy efficiency potential and use their purchasing power to buy these services locally, thus creating wealth for their communities.

Or CPS’s Beneby can continue to invest in nuclear power plants built in Japan and create wealth for other nations.

The strange “tale of two cities” and their contrasting utilities will continue.

Tom “Smitty” Smith directs the Texas office of Public Citizen, a national consumer and environmental watchdog group.


By promoting cleaner energy, cleaner government, and cleaner air for all Texans, we hope to provide for a healthy place to live and prosper. We are Public Citizen Texas.