If you haven’t heard already, San Antonio hosted its inaugural air quality forum this past week at the “Castle” headquarters of the socially conscious, innovative company Rackspace, and I felt fortunate to be an invited panelist at this groundbreaking event.
Mike Burke, chair and founder of the San Antonio Clean Technology Forum, and Scott Storment, executive director of Mission Verde Alliance, were leaders in developing the program, “Keeping It Clean: Our Air, Our Health,” to highlight San Antonio’s pressing need to focus on air pollution solutions and engage the local community on ways it can help.
In August 2012, San Antonio fell into “monitored non-attainment”, meaning the region failed to meet both federal ozone standards and the city’s own air quality goals established in the SA2020 plan. Known as a leader in taking proactive measures to address air quality challenges, the seventh largest U.S. city now faces rising levels of ground-level ozone. This increase has much to do with the rapid growth in population (a 16 percent increase in population between 2000 and 2010 according to U.S. census data) and the shift within the state’s energy landscape, with emissions from Eagle Ford oil and gas activities expected to contribute several parts per billion worth of ozone to the region’s airshed. Because city-dwellers have a heightened exposure to pollution, ground-level ozone is particularly dangerous in dense metropolitan areas. Research shows that urban residents are more at risk of respiratory health problems, such as asthma, heart attacks and lung cancer.
The forum discussion ranged from San Antonio’s successful history in meeting air quality standards to new efforts underway to transition from highly polluting coal fired power plants to clean energy solutions, such as solar power. Panelists included Doyle Beneby, president and CEO of CPS Energy, San Antonio’s municipal utility; Dr. Thomas Schlenker, director of the San Antonio Metropolitan Health District; Peter Bella, natural resources director with Alamo Area Council of Governments; and me. Robert Rivard, director of the Rivard Report was the moderator and Judge Nelson Wolff of Bexar County gave opening remarks. An overview of the discussion can be found here.
I applaud San Antonio for its proactive measures to improve ozone levels and empower the community to take simple actions that will create a healthier future for all San Antonians. As San Antonio, and other Texas cities for that matter, continues to grow at such a rapid rate, it is becoming increasingly important to promote sustainability and to simultaneously grow the economy with clean technology.
Some of the recommendations I mentioned at the forum include:
1. Harness more clean energy:
Currently 45 percent of San Antonio's energy generation comes from coal – that’s higher than the Texas average, which for the first quarter of 2013 was 37 percent, and even higher than the U.S. average of 42 percent. CPS is a leader in installed wind and solar capacity. While the City of San Antonio has no specific policy to purchase renewable energy for its own use, other Texan city governments, such as Austin and Houston have been aggressive in these purchases. This commitment to clean energy would enable a healthier environment and better air quality for all.
2. Raise the minimum energy efficiency standards for new buildings:
San Antonio was the first city in Texas to adopt the 2009 model building codes, established by the International Energy Conservation Code (IECC), but now the city is falling behind. Twenty-two other Texas cities have adopted, or are about to adopt, the 2012 codes, which will reduce new residential energy use by about 15 percent. The 2012 codes would save the average homeowner in San Antonio $21 per month on his or her electric bill, according to an analysis by the Building Codes Assistance Project. Additionally, the energy efficiency standards reduced nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions by 879 tons in 2009 (equal to the emissions from 46,000 cars – according to the Energy Systems Laboratory at Texas A&M).
3. Limit emissions from oil and gas activities:
Air pollution from oil and gas development is one of the environmental risks associated with a booming natural gas industry. For San Antonio, the aggressive development of the Eagle Ford, as well as the high volatile organic compounds (VOC) content of the gas in the area, means controlling emissions from Eagle Ford will be a critical element of the region’s clean air strategy plan. In fact, it was stated during the panel that these emissions could bring an additional 2-7 parts per billion worth of ozone to the region.
Change won’t happen overnight, but it does happen with a strong commitment and a plan to succeed. We encourage San Antonio to continue its strong leadership in air quality improvement by adopting a clean air campaign that looks at new challenges ahead.
I’d like to give a special shout out to Melissa Gray and her sustainability team at Rackspace for the exceptional effort that went into making the inaugural air quality forum in San Antonio eco-friendly. One hundred percent of the materials for the event were recycled, including 92 pounds of solid food waste that were composted. Gray’s forward thinking and thoughtful leadership come as a breath of fresh air!
[Editor's Note: This post has been updated to accurately reflect the nature of CPS and the City of San Antonio's relationship to energy source uses and policies.]