SAWS, CPS Energy team up for pumping station backup power plan

Effect of SAWS’ $202M plan on water rates unclear; calls for generators at 36 sites

CPS Energy and SAWS approve a plan aimed at preventing another utilities disaster like the one that happened in the February freeze of 2021.

San AntonioEDITOR’S NOTE: A previous version of this story incorrectly described the plan for the sites with diesel-powered generators. It has been corrected below.

A year-and-a-half after faucets around Bexar County ran dry during the 2021 February Freeze, the San Antonio Water System has a $202 million plan to keep the water flowing should it happen again.

And the utility is teaming up with CPS Energy to do it.

In a joint meeting Wednesday afternoon, the trustees for both utilities approved an agreement that would result in the shared use of natural gas generators at 15 SAWS pumping stations.

SAWS will pay the $97 million to acquire and install the generators, and CPS Energy will operate them. The electric utility would also be able to use them for power needs in the meantime, and the two utilities would then share the revenue.

A year-and-a-half after faucets around Bexar County ran dry during the 2021 February Freeze, the San Antonio Water System has a $202 million plan to keep the water flowing should it happen again.

The rest of SAWS’ $202 million plan calls for diesel-powered backup generators at another 21 sites, which CPS would also be able to operate. The utility wants to get all 36 sites finished within seven years.

A CPS Energy executive said the plan for the 15 shared generators should not affect electricity rates, and SAWS COO Steve Clouse said the same for water rates.

However, Clouse said the effect of the other 21 generators on rates had not yet been determined.

“We’re looking at rates for the future and haven’t made any decisions on that,” he told KSAT.

The water utility’s “Emergency Power Plan” (EPP) is required under a state law that came out of the freeze, Senate Bill 3, which requires SAWS to have a plan to keep its system’s water pressure high enough to avoid a boil water notice following a 24-hour power outage.

Clouse said SAWS’ plan has been submitted to the state but not yet approved. He’s more than confident it will be, though, telling reporters, “If they don’t approve our plan, there is no plan that will be approved in the state.”

Although the state bar for the plan is to maintain water pressure of at least 20 psi across the service area, Clouse said that is right on the line for a boil water notice, and SAWS is aiming to maintain at least 25 psi in an emergency.

The utility had previously ignored a 2015 recommendation by outside disaster planning experts urging SAWS to purchase generators. At the time, Clouse said, the utility considered it was unnecessary, given CPS Energy’s reliability.

But the forced power outages during the 2021 February freeze ended up also affecting SAWS pumping stations, which in turn cut off water for many customers.

“What we learned in (Winter Storm) Uri are there are outside influences outside of CPS or SAWS’ control that do produce that risk. Once we realized we had that risk, we knew we needed to move forward with it,” Clouse said.

For CPS Energy, being able to operate the generators would give them about 30 megawatts when needed -- enough electricity to power 6,000 homes. Jonathan Tijerina, vice president of enterprise risk and developmentm said that wouldn’t be very often, likely an average of about 150 hours per year.

“This is not a base load energy, 24/7-type solution. These are these are designed to help with short and medium term needs, but have the capability of running long term should it be in a resiliency type outage,” Tijerina said.

The SAWS and CPS Energy boards both approved resolutions approving the agreement in back-to-back unanimous votes.


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About the Authors:

Garrett Brnger is a reporter with KSAT 12.

Luis Cienfuegos is a photographer at KSAT 12.