Letty Martinez, Shiny Flanary and Xochitl Garnica spent the spring and summer taming weeds and planting crops on their new two-acre farm on Portland’s Sauvie Island.
They teamed up to rent the land for their farming collective, which takes donations so it can provide some of its produce to low-income customers for free. As the farm grows, they’re hoping to add growing tunnels and a greenhouse with lighting and refrigeration powered by solar panels and batteries.
“As you can see, we’re really off the grid,” Garnica said, gesturing to the open field around her. “All of that will really help us a lot so we can help the community that really needs fresh produce.”
Garnica, an indigenous Mexican, said she knows how expensive fresh produce can be at local grocery stores like New Seasons and Trader Joe’s.
“My family, we can’t afford to go to those places,” she said.
Garnica and her coworkers are not the typical Oregon farmers, more than 96% of whom are white.
That means they could benefit from the new pot of grant money available through the Portland Clean Energy Fund — a climate action program created and led by communities of color.
Martinez said the program could help their farm break away from an unjust economic system that hasn’t served them in the past and leaves too many people without access to healthy food.
“It doesn’t work,” Martinez said. “It doesn’t consider everyone and a lot of people end up with nothing at the end of it. We want folks to leave here with armfuls of whatever it is that they need.”
While their farmland is providing food for people in need, it’s also preserving green space in the city and sequestering carbon in the soil through regenerative farming practices. Plus, it creates farming jobs for people of color.
All of that fits nicely with the mission of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, a program launched through a voter-approved ballot measure in 2018.
A game changer
By taxing large retailers, the fund is expected to generate $40-60 million a year, and all of it is reserved for communities of color and those with low income who are more likely to suffer from the effects of climate change.
Portland City Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty calls the program her baby, which she helped create to diversify the world of renewable energy.
“We’re talking about energy efficiency, but we’re also talking about workforce development," she said. "If you look at the green field today it’s predominantly white male.”
Hardesty said the program is already changing the way underserved communities are thinking about their future.
“They couldn’t even envision, how do I have solar panels? How do I add a green roof to my building? But today they’re starting to think about: What would that look like?" she said. “This is a game changer for Portland and quite frankly, I think, nationally."
The program has guidelines for spending grant money in several areas, with 40-60% going to energy projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions like weatherizing homes and adding solar panels, 20-25% for workforce development and training for clean energy jobs like installing solar panels, 10-15% for regenerative farming and green infrastructure and 5% for “innovation.”
The retailers that make $1 billion in sales nationally and $500,000 in Portland are subject to a 1% surcharge on their gross revenues to fund the program. Last year, the Portland City Council pared back the number of businesses that are subject to that surcharge, exempting construction contractors, retirement plans and garbage and recycling services.
After some delays, and many months of outreach to communities that are eligible for funding, the program is now offering its first $8.6 million in climate action grants with plans to announce the recipients early next year.
The money comes at a critical time for groups that are fighting for racial justice and suffering disproportionately from the coronavirus pandemic, though it’s not clear yet who exactly who will benefit.
Sam Baraso, who manages the PCEF program for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability said the fund, will help address “centuries of underinvestment” in low-income neighborhoods and communities of color, where people face higher risks from climate change impacts such as extreme heat and weather events, air pollution and wildfire smoke.
They’re also more likely to pay a higher portion of their income toward utility bills and less likely to benefit from existing clean energy programs that offer tax credits for things like solar panels and energy efficiency, he said.
“We know that a majority of those beneficiaries were high-income households,” Baraso said. “Oregon’s been a great state in making these investments in energy efficiency and renewable energy. However, those benefits have not accrued to low income and communities of color.”
Anissa Pemberton, a program coordinator with the Coalition of Communities of Color, said the money will be a great help to the Black and Latinx communities that have been hit hard by the coronavirus pandemic.
“We see this as a economic recovery tool,” Pemberton said. “I am hopeful that it will provide a stabilizing force for some low-income Portlanders, especially the folks who are looking for a new job.”
Pemberton said communities of color took the lead in designing the clean energy fund amid a lack of federal leadership on climate change.
“People of color communities in general, we have known for a long time that no one is coming to help us,” Pemberton said. “We’ve always had to find our own solutions.”
Businesses that fought against the program are now watching its evolution with a critical eye. The city of Portland had originally planned on distributing its first PCEF grants this year, but it recently extended the deadline for grant applications to Nov. 23 and plans to announce the grant awards in February.
Andrew Hoan is the CEO of the Portland Business Alliance, a group of more than 1,900 businesses that fought against the ballot measure that created the program. He said the business community supports the goals of the program but disagrees with the way it’s being funded.
“In light of an economically devastating year that 2020 represents and additional tax increases that have happened over the past two years, it’s a very challenging business environment we find ourselves in today,” he said, noting the coronavirus pandemic, violent political protests and massive wildfires, have all taken big tolls.
The city denied a request from business interests for a pause in collecting the PCEF surcharge during the pandemic. So, businesses are still paying into the fund, but very little money has been invested, Hoan said.
“This was approved in 2018, and two years later we are unaware of any large-scale expenses of the fund or job creation numbers that are available,” he said. “We really do need an effectively operating Portland Clean Energy Fund. We need it to deliver on promises made to voters.”
Robin Wang, a nonprofit executive, is one of nine grant committee members who will choose which projects get funded. He said he knows critics are watching closely to make sure the money is spent properly.
“I was a little skeptical about the initiative as a voter,” he said. “You know, sometimes money is wasted through government.”
He said the committee has been moving carefully toward making funding decisions because the program is the first of its kind and there’s no model to follow, but now there are millions of dollars waiting to be spent at a time when the money is desperately needed.
“So, there is this kind of tension between getting it done quickly and getting it done right,” he said.
Each of the program areas has its own measures of success, he noted, but ultimately the goal is to strike a balance between reducing carbon emissions and supporting the people who are most at risk in a warming world.
“People want it to be simple,” he said. “They just want to say, you know, we pulled 20 million tons of carbon from the air, right? That’s nice. But the reality is more complicated than that.”