Students of energy policy have long been familiar with the cry from activists: Government shouldn’t pick the winners and losers.

But the environmental movement, albeit with good intentions, is quite often guilty of that. Collectively, the environmentalists have told the electric utility industry, with varying degrees of vehemence, “We want wind and solar.”

As an afterthought, some environmentalists have acknowledged that there are other options, most notably nuclear and improved storage, and there is the possibility of new technologies or huge improvements in the known ones.

These deserve a hearing in the great sea change now taking place in electricity production.

Overselling Alternatives

Electric utilities want to reduce and end carbon emissions. But right now, they’re struggling with the overselling of alternatives when they don’t have enough essential backup in the form of storage. They also have the huge imperative of maintaining service — in lay terms, keeping the lights on.

CPS Energy
CMS
, San Antonio’s municipally owned electric and gas utility with over 860,000 electric and 358,000 gas customers, is putting its best big green foot forward, but wants to avoid being trapped into rigidity.

To that end, CPS Energy has canvassed the world, seeking ideas that will best deliver 500 MWe of new technology, 900 MWe of solar power and 50 MWe of storage. The new technology includes solutions for generation, conservation, and what the utility calls “firming,” which is backup for electricity generated from sun and wind.

In response to its July request for information (RFI), CPS Energy has received nearly 200 expressions of interest from around the world. That enthusiastic response affirmed the mantra of Paula Gold-Williams, CPS Energy president and CEO, “Think global, apply local.”

“Over time, we’ve been able to be very effective, very creative, very innovative, and the utility is especially proud of its conservation record to date,” she said during a recent event on the RFI responses.

From 2010 to 2012, Gold-Williams said, CPS Energy was faced with the choice of installing 800 MWe of new generation. Instead the utility opted for conservation and demand-side management and was able to avoid the new build.

Now CPS Energy is looking to support its 1,700 MWe of aging generation and to provide San Antonio’s ever-increasing population with reliable green power. Gold-Williams is proud that the utility already has the state’s largest installed solar capacity at 400 MWe and buys in “wind-generated power from across Texas.”

The almost 200 RFI responses spanned the globe, from Asia to Australia to South America and, predictably, many came from climate-sensitive Europe.

The utility, according to Chief Operating Officer Cris Eugster, has hired the engineering consulting firm Black & Veatch to do a technical assessment of the RFI responses and to work on the next stage, a request for proposal (RFP). He said the responses came mostly from companies with projects that are “ready to go,” and can start installation in the 2021 to 2023 timeframe.

Mayor Is Excited

San Antonio Mayor Ron Nirenberg, who has a seat on the CPS Energy Board, said in his announcement of the RFI, “The ‘FlexPower Bundle’ is as important as it is exciting. CPS Energy has shown that it is ready to embrace the kind of bold innovation needed to remain on the cutting-edge of technology solutions that we need for a clean, sustainable energy future.”

The overwhelming majority, 90 percent, of the RFI responses addressed the FlexPower Bundle, according to Eugster.

The responses break down this way:

·      Refined gas-powered generation, turbines or reciprocating engines

·      Compressed-air energy storage

·      Liquid air (cryogenic) energy storage

·      Thermal energy storage, using mostly waste heat in concrete or rock hosts

·      Underground pumped hydro, using abandoned oilwells and mines for the drop

·      Kinetic storage with flywheels

These technologies promise longer duration, higher efficiency, and less degradation than today’s available battery storage, CPS Energy said.

Eugster said the utility is particularly gratified by the number of entrants who are based in the San Antonio area. Gold-Williams said they’re also interested in encouraging young people to make careers in renewables and conservation, and RFP responses would be more favorably evaluated if they have a view to job creation.

If it is green and does the job a step ahead of what is out there, it will have a home in San Antonio. Interestingly hydrogen, which has been welcomed in Europe and embraced by the environmental community, only garnered about 3 percent of the RFI responses.

Gold-Williams said the utility will enthusiastically share its experiences and technology assets with other utilities interested in the frontier of innovation.

The area between Austin and San Antonio is one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. It is expected to grow by more than 2 million people in the next 10 years, according to The Greater Austin-San Antonio Corridor Council. Both cities have excellent universities, attracting new businesses. San Antonio hosts the military’s huge Joint Base San Antonio – and it calls itself “Military City.”

Gold-Williams is proud to serve the military, not the way her father did as an Army intelligence officer, but as the leader of the city’s gas and electricity supplier.

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