Jeremy Rifkin on San Antonio, the European Union, and the lessons learned in our push for a planetary-scale power shift
Published: September 28, 2011
No that’s great, that’s a really good background and I think it helps put San Antonio into context. I mean, you came here and two of the things you recognize as you talk about the challenges of our city — one is the economic contribution that is tied in by design with our utility, but then also the high level of poverty in the city. The “Two San Antonio’s” you heard about so much while you were here. When you were creating the master plan, how did you take those issues in mind and kind of work through a rollout of the five pillars for this city?
We looked at the numbers and we looked at what San Antonio under [former Mayor Phil] Hardberger and [former chair of CPS Energy's board of directors] Aurora Geis, what the numbers were that they wanted to get to on their carbon reduction levels. Then we looked at what it would take to phase in 5, 10, 15, 20 years toward the new system without collapsing the old one. And when we took all the variables and ran all the numbers with our economics group, what we found is —and we found this in Rome, and that plan is really moving aggressively now in Europe — what we found is that every community and every city in good times or in bad times or even in depression has [Gross Domestic Product], there is always GDP. A percentage of that GDP in the worst of times is used for new investments. It’s never completely stalled; there is always public-private investment and a small part of GDP. I don’t remember the exact numbers in San Antonio but what we found is that they used just a small percentage of their GDP and just a small percentage...
I think it was like 5 percent or something...
Was it that high? I have to go back and look. If they can take, it may be 3 or 4 percent, and use the other 96 percent on keeping the old system alive, on life support because we don’t want it to collapse, that’s also the key to keeping the economy moving. If you only spend a few percentage points, but it was systematic and comprehensive in getting the new structure in and you kept it moving without any fallbacks year after year. You could phase it in over 20-25 years.
Was part of the challenge having to work with multiple governmental groups? I mean, you don’t just have the city but then you’ve got the county. Really, you have a regional… Were you looking at multiple counties, like the metropolitan region?
Yeah we were. This plan was collaborative. We spent a lot of time with [CPS Energy sustainability director, Cris] Eugster and a whole team over there. This was truly collaborative. We laid out each step and all the possible options, and then we had continuous feedback back and forth between CPS. This was not just us. In fact, we can't do these master plans unless there’s enough confidence at the local level that they have expertise that is parallel to our group’s expertise and they definitely did in San Antonio, for sure. Having said that, one of the things we said to them was that San Antonio can be the center of the southern Texas network. We recommended they create lateral networks and become part of a critical network in South Texas to launch third industrial revolution as a flagship for the country and we're mindful that Texas oil wells were synonymous in the second industrial revolution. It’s Texas oil wells that gave us the auto culture. I was mindful that CPS, early on, Aurora Geis made it very clear to us that they wanted to move in this direction and be a flagship. It was just serendipitous that they became our first master plan even though most of our work is on the other part of the world. So we said you could, you need to develop all of southern Texas. What’s interesting here is that fossil fuel energies, because they're elite and centralized, they scale vertically, they cost huge amounts of money in capital, and therefore all other businesses scale vertically with them. You need big factories that are centralized, the logistics that are centralized, and that’s what we have in the 19th and 20th century. What's interesting about the third industrial revolution infrastructure and energy is they scale laterally. They’re nodal. That is, each community and region becomes a node and creats a 5 Pillar infrastructure, creates a biosphere park, if you will. These energies like to move uninhibited across landmasses like information likes to run free on the internet. So once you have a node, you want to connect with the next node, the next node, the next node like wi-fi. And what we see this happening in Europe and the other places we're working. Each node starts to develop, they get the 5 Pillars, and then they want to hook up with the next metropolitan area, extend it to suburban world, then the next, and the next, and the next. That’s the way it comes in. Then we suggested to San Antonio they were ideally positioned to do this. First they're a public utility, which gives them quite a bit of an advantage. Secondly, they were already ahead of the game when we came in on wind and they were moving towards solar. Now, post-nuclear, they are really ideally positioned, because now the nuclear is no longer in the equation. They are ideally suited now in southern Texas to actually make an historic difference, not just in Texas, for the rest of the country. We are now hearing from other utilities, big utilities that want us to come in now in other places in the country to start moving this thing. We just haven’t been able to turn our attention here, but we will be starting in January and there will be other states involved. California, for sure.
> Email Greg Harman