The head of the biggest municipally owned electric and natural gas utility in the U.S. describes her relationship with environmentalists as “good, but not easy.”

“Are they tough? Are they demanding? Do they want us to take more aggressive views towards renewables and solar projects? Of course,” Paula Gold-Williams, CEO of San Antonio’s CPS Energy, told Bloomberg Environment.

But getting there is a balancing act.

In recognizing the role environmentalists play in shaping the utility’s energy future, however, Gold-Williams said she decided that more communication was needed. In 2011, CPS started an environmental stakeholders group that meets once a quarter and is open to the public.

As with many electric utilities, a major point of contention is winding down coal’s use as a fuel source for generating electricity.

Take the most recent discussions about plans to shutter the J.T. Deely Station, CPS Energy’s 1970s-era coal-fueled power plant, at the end of the year. Environmental advocates say they are concerned Gold-Williams is giving “mixed signals” about following through with that plan. She said they are still on track to close the plant, but that the company is keeping its options open.

‘We Don’t Judge’

These are the type of issues confronting big utility executives.

By comparison, Gold-Williams said, being one of the few African-American female executives in the U.S. energy sector isn’t all that hard. She said she simply tries to focus on serving customers.

“What I say to everyone is electrons and molecules love everyone,” she said. “We don’t judge others we serve.”

In addition to environmentalists, Gold-Williams serves a diverse constituency of businesses, individual ratepayers, other municipalities, and the company’s board, which is appointed by San Antonio’s City Council. Her challenges include how to power San Antonio, the seventh-largest U.S. city and still growing, while trying to get it into compliance with federal standards for ozone pollution.

Gold-Williams said she is confident that San Antonio would be in compliance with EPA standards for ozone pollution by 2021. She also is confident the utility’s continued push to incorporate renewable energy sources into electricity production and investment in low-emission fleet vehicles would help the region’s drive toward complying with air quality standards.

Her efforts have impressed those she’s worked with, including Christine Scanlan, who heads the Keystone Policy Center, a Colorado-based nonprofit that brings together public- and private-sector leaders with diverse backgrounds to work on policy issues.

Scanlan said she was struck by Gold-Williams’ work on helping San Antonio become a “Smart City,” a term for urban areas using technological projects to improve residents’ quality of life.

“She’s thoughtful and listens—she has to because she works at CPS, with the whole community,” Scanlan said.

Headed Toward Arts Career

Growing up in San Antonio, Gold-Williams never contemplated running utility company. As a college student in the Alamo City, she was headed towards a career in the arts until accounting caught her eye.

“I studied dance and literature, but I took an elective accounting class that I really enjoyed,” she said.

After mastering balance sheets and financial statements, Gold-Williams went on to work for accounting firm Ernst & Young, Time Warner Cable, and Luby’s, a prominent chain of cafeteria-style restaurants in the Lone Star State, before landing at CPS in 2004.

She was promoted to chief financial officer in 2008. Eight years later, she was appointed CEO and president after running the company on an interim basis for nine months.

“She has an interesting background and has a willingness to use data in her decisions, to keep CPS growing,” Paula Glover, president and CEO of the American Association of Blacks in Energy, told Bloomberg Environment.

Glover said she was impressed with Gold-Williams’ push to incorporate solar power into the company’s portfolio.

CPS broke ground in October on the company’s first solar-battery storage project. In collaboration with the Southwest Research Institute, CPS is building a $16.3 million, 5-megawatt solar power facility and a 10-megawatt battery storage system for high-energy-use days.

The goal is to gather data that could be used to by CPS to build similar, larger projects.

Reaching Out

Former CPS Energy CEO Milton Lee proposed an expansion of a nuclear power plant in 2009, but cost overruns and other issues scuttled the project. The experience led to the company writing off $391 million from the $18.2 billion project and compelled Gold-Williams to reach out to the local environmental community.

“We had quite a few environmentalists from across the state and to some degree from across the nation show up in San Antonio to express their concerns about the project,” she said.

Greg Harman, a clean energy organizer with the Lone Star Chapter of the Sierra Club in San Antonio, told Bloomberg Environment that Gold-Williams’ tenure is an interlude to San Antonio’s inevitable rise to 100 percent clean-energy infrastructure.

The Sierra Club has received funding from Bloomberg Philanthropies, the charitable organization founded by Michael Bloomberg. Bloomberg Environment is operated by entities controlled by Michael Bloomberg.

‘Mixed Signals’

With the EPA’s proposed Affordable Clean Energy Plan—the Trump administration’s alternative to the Obama-era Clean Power Plan—giving coal plant operators an opportunity to keep their plants online, Harman was one of those concerned about whether Gold-Williams would proceed with shutting down the J.T. Deely Station.

“It’s obvious that Gold-Williams doesn’t share the community’s enthusiasm or urgency for moving our city beyond coal,” Harman said. “The ‘flex path’ plan she is shopping around to all the various chambers of commerce demonstrates she intends to keep burning dirty coal until at least 2042.”

He is referring to CPS’ "Flexible Path,” under which the utility aims to provide 55 percent of its electricity through wind, solar, other renewables, and battery storage by 2040. Gas would provide 13 percent, coal 7 percent, nuclear power 9 percent and FlexGen—an advanced energy technology that includes power conversion and energy storage—16 percent.

Gold-Williams maintains J.T. Deely will close.

“Absolutely it is, but we’re prudently just reviewing a lot of things,” Gold-Williams said. “We learned a long time ago that we needed to be diversified.”