Portland City Council greenlit the first round of grants from the Portland Clean Energy Fund Thursday, approving $8.6 million for a slate of projects aimed at reducing greenhouse gas emissions and advancing racial justice.
The program, approved by voters in 2018, taxes large corporations on their Portland sales to provide a pot of funding for nonprofits looking to start projects aimed at advancing both climate and racial justice.
City staff have said they expect the fund to generate up to $60 million dollars annually. On Thursday, the council voted to distribute a fraction of those funds, divided up among 45 grants from 38 nonprofits.
“The first round of funding — the first of many to come — centers front line communities and lifts up their ideas and approaches,” said Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who is in charge of the city’s Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, which oversees the fund. “These projects demonstrate ingenuity in how they could confront climate change.”
A handful of the applicants said they were focused on making Portland’s stock of old buildings more energy efficient. The Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives Inc., a Black-led organization that owns over 800 units in North and Northeast Portland, requested about $668,000 to reduce greenhouse gases across its portfolio of low-income housing — most of which was built in the early 1900s. Kymberly Horner, the executive director of PCRI, said she believed the funding would help them become a more “green-based organization.”
Other projects were more focused on social justice issues. Among them is AfroVillage, which will provide transitional housing for people experiencing homelessness with a focus on people of color, according to its website. Laquida Landford and Marta Petteni, the organizers behind these projects, said they’re looking to transform a retired MAX train into a “safe healing space” for vulnerable Portlanders. The project requested a little over $98,000.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty, who championed the fund and refers to the program as her baby, said she was impressed by the range of nonprofits that had requested the initial grants, a far cry from the white businesses that dominate the clean energy industry.
“These are organizations who may not have seen themselves as either climate organizations or clean energy organizations,” she said. “Many of these groups — if we’d done a traditional process — would not have qualified for a grant.”
Not everyone is sure they should have qualified. Former Commissioner Steve Novick published a letter in The Oregonian Thursday, saying he was disappointed that many of the proposals failed to quantify in clear metrics to what extent the project would assist low-income people of color or reduce greenhouse gas emissions. He also said he wanted to see the fund restructured to allow for financing of green transportation projects — such as bike infrastructure and electric vehicles.
Sam Baraso, the project manager for the fund, told the council he expects the slate of projects to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by roughly 11,500 metric tons. But there was not an individual break out in emission reductions by projects within the report provided to council.
“I kind of get the impression that they said, ‘Well we want to see proposals on stuff that has something to do with pollution and workforce and sustainable development. Show me what you got,’” Novick said. “And they end up with dozens of things that, in most cases, I could not figure out what the potential carbon emission reductions or potential benefits to people in disadvantaged communities were.”
Novick said he felt there were significant proposals that could have a meaningful impact on reducing carbon emission, such as a proposal by the Oregon Environmental Council to train workers from underrepresented populations to repair electric vehicles, that had been rejected — while a proposal from a yoga studio looking for $100,000 to build herb gardens on a rooftop and a parking lot had been approved.
“This could be a national model — or it could be something that the right wing uses to beat up on green energy,” said Novick. “And I am worried that you’ll see Fox News saying, ‘Here’s what happens when you get a green new deal: you spend money on gardens on the roofs of yoga studios.’”
None of the current council members had any objections Wednesday, enthusiastically endorsing the package of projects. Before his vote, the mayor said, he felt it was not his place to weigh in on individual grants as the idea for the fund came from the community and there was an oversight committee that had the responsibility to review applications.
“I don’t see my role here being to say ‘I approve of this contract and not of that contract,’” Wheeler said. “I see it as an opportunity to make sure the program is in alignment with what voters approved.”
Hardesty said she still expects a hefty amount of scrutiny of the program as it begins awarding more grants.
“There will be a lot of scrutiny — nationally, locally, regionally — because guess what? Once again Oregon is first,” she said. “We are on the cutting edge.”
Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correctly state the number of housing units owned by Portland Community Reinvestment Initiatives Inc. and the amount of grant money received by the organization.