By San Antonio Express-News

CPS Energy has received fairly strong blowback for its so-called “flexible” energy plan.

This is largely because the plan includes coal power through at least 2042. It also projects half of CPS Energy’s power will come from clean energy sources by 2040. Not only is coal a more expensive energy source, it’s also a major source of carbon dioxide emissions, the leading contributor to climate change.

At a time when technology around renewable energy sources is rapidly developing, and natural gas prices are projected to be low for decades — thanks to fracking — environmental groups have been particularly pained to see coal projected to remain in CPS Energy’s portfolio for years to come.

Less coal, or no coal, likely means more clean energy.

“It’s absurd to think that we should have any coal in our energy mix anywhere close to 2042,” Terry Burns, chairman of the Sierra Clubs’ Alamo Group has said in a statement.

Such frustration is understandable. The desire to have San Antonio’s power generation free of greenhouse gas emissions is commendable. But the community would benefit from a more nuanced and realistic discussion.

It’s unfortunate, but not absurd, that coal would be part of San Antonio’s long-term energy mix. This is more a product of bad timing than bad policy.

Remember, CPS Energy opened its Spruce 2 coal plant in 2010 at a cost of $1 billion. It was a different era in terms of gas prices and renewable technologies. The lifetime for such a plant is 55 years.

Yes, Spruce 2 could be taken offline, but it would need to be replaced with another energy source, likely natural gas, said Cris Eugster, CPS Energy’s chief operating officer. That would be an untenable hit to ratepayers. It also wouldn’t make any sense given how quickly technology is evolving.

As it stands now, CPS Energy cycles its coal-power sources at roughly half capacity, Eugster said. When wind power dies down in the morning, coal power plants fire up to meet peak demand. They also provide much-needed backbone to the Texas energy market.

This dynamic may change as renewables and battery storage technology develop, which is why the plan has been dubbed flexible. That flexible path projects that CPS Energy will generate half of its power from renewable sources by 2040.

Could the utility do better in this regard? That’s a fair question. There are certainly aspects of the flexible plan that merit further review and discussion.

For example, CPS Energy has said it will need to run the older Spruce 1 unit until 2030. The plant dates back to 1992 and is in need of $130 million in pollution controls. If the plant really is going to run for 12 more years, then CPS Energy likely needs to commit to those pollution controls. Otherwise, the utility needs to explore an accelerated timeline.

The utility is also studying retiring its V.H. Braunig natural gas units in the 2020s. This represents an opportunity to be more aggressive with renewable energy sources.

The public could also benefit from more information. Why not publish emissions data online as well as real-time updates about CPS Energy’s energy mix? The utility is in a unique position to drive this type of conversation.

Could the utility set more ambitious clean energy targets in its flexible plan? If so, what would that mean for ratepayers?

In this sense, CPS Energy’s flexible plan should be viewed as the beginning of a long community conversation, not the end. It’s a conversation that will be enhanced by the city’s climate action plan.

The relative newness of the Spruce 2 plant means coal will almost certainly be part of CPS’ energy mix for decades, but that reality doesn’t mean CPS can’t still be a leader in clean energy.