Council OKs $120 million in Portland clean energy grants
The City Council tentatively approved around $120 million in Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund grants on Wednesday, July 20.
Under newly-adopted policies, the director of the program can revoke individual grants if management or other problems are identified within 45 days. The change responds to criticisms identified by a city audit and news reports that prompted the council to reassign a previous grant.
Mayor Ted Wheeler said the program is expected to take risks but that the council needs to minimize them.
"There are inherent risks, there will be mistakes, some won't pan out, but we need to mitigate those risks," Wheeler said.
Although she voted for the grants, Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty denounced the additional reviews as racist because the program funds grants to organization that serve communities of colors.
"We never question other grants," Hardesty said. "This feels like racism of the worst kind every time we talk about the Clean Energy Fund."
No other council member questioned the reasons for requiring additional scrutiny, however. That included Commissioner Carmen Rubio who oversee the agency that administers the program.
"It's being held to a higher standard because it's a one-of-kind program," said Rubio, the former executive director of the Latino Network.
The requests covered a wide range of environmental equity projects. They included clean energy retrofits for qualifying residents' homes, regenerative agriculture and green infrastructure projects like gardening and farming, and training and apprenticeship opportunities in green technologies such as solar panel installation.
The request from the grant committee came four months after the Portland Auditor's Office said the program had not yet finalized methods to track, measure and report its performance, as required by the November 2018 ballot measure that created it. It also said the program was tied to a Climate Action Plan that expired in 2020.
The council is considering a replacement plan.
In response, Rubio and program officials promised to have performance metrics in place this month, submit recommendations for a clear climate strategy by the end of the year and establish performance goals by July 2023. Rubio oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability that manages the fund and staffs its grant committee.
The metrics were adopted by the grant committee at its June 30 meeting. Among other things, they include measuring projected energy savings and the number of people employed on each project.
Additional reviews noted grant applicants requesting more than twice their annual budget, entering into new areas of work, or operating for three years or less. Staff requested more information about such requests and, in some cases, asked if the requests should be modified to be more realistic.
According to program manager Sam Baraso, the additional reviews flagged 44 of the 144 eligible applicants, generated 300 emails between staff and applicants, and added about two months to the grant review process. Of the 65 grants submitted to the council, 30 went through the additional review process to either gather more information or modify the original request.
"The audit was very helpful in identifying issues in the young program that need to be resolved. The program staff and I agree with the recommendations, and we are working to implement them by the end of the year, if not sooner," Rubio told the Portland Tribune during a tour of the new Hayu Tilixam affordable housing project supported with program-funded energy upgrades on Friday, July 9.
The program was created by Measure 26-201, which was drafted by a coalition of minority, environmental, social justice and faith-based organizations. It was approved at the November 2018 election and imposes a 1% surcharge on retailers with annual sales of $1 billion or more in the U.S. and $500,000 or more within Portland. The money raised is intended to fund energy and environmental projects to benefit lower-income communities, including communities of color.
The council unanimously approved the first group of 45 grants, worth $8.6 million, recommended by the grant committee in April 2021. Approval of a subsequent $12 million air conditioning grant following last year's heat wave was withdrawn and awarded to another organization after The Oregonian raised questions about the qualifications of the original recipient.
Grant requests tentatively approved by the council on July 20 included:
• $96,000 for the Friends of Trees tree-planting organization to provide Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) individuals with "a pathway to well-paying jobs in the forestry sector"
• $1.2 million for the Street Roots homeless advocacy organization to install a solar array, a battery backup and a new heating and cooling system at a building it recently bought
• $5.5 million for Central City Concern to upgrade heat and air conditioning at four multi-family properties serving low-income tenants in Old Town.
The largest grant recommended by the committee is $10 million to Community Energy Project Inc. to complete 40 to 50 "deep energy retrofits" annually for five years for low-income homeowners, with a minimum of 50% being people of color.
According to the recommendation report, the estimated lifetime reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for some of the projects is estimated to be roughly 300,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. That's equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from almost 65,000 gasoline-powered cars driven for one year.
The program currently is collecting three times more money than estimated when Portland voters approved it — $90 million a year compared to the original $30 million estimate.
After the audit was released, the Portland Business Alliance called for program spending to be frozen until an emergency, independent 90-day commission could review it in a March 14 letter. Rubio rejected the request but promised to work with the alliance and other stakeholders on the issues raised by the audit. The alliance did not oppose the new grant requests.
The Hayu Tilixam affordable housing project is being developed by the Native American Youth and Family Center in the Cully Neighborhood at 5872 N.E. Prescott. The $20 million project is being largely financed by Portland affordable housing bond fund with around $370,000 in clean energy funds being primary used for energy upgrades, including highly efficient hot water heaters. It is scheduled to be completed in around a month.
"The clean energy funds allowed use to close a financing gap while increasing the overall efficiency of the project," said project manager Keith Ferrante.
Hayu Tilixam — which means Many Nations in the Chinook language — will offer 50 units of affordable housing with nine supported by social services reserved for Native Americans. It is the first of the organization's three projects in the Cully neighborhood to include clean energy funds.
A fourth affordable housing-related grant request by the organization is among those to be considered by the council on July 13.
A previous Portland Tribune story on the issue can be found here.
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