Oregon lawmakers are considering two bills aimed at helping vulnerable Oregonians during extreme heat events. The bills were created in response to last June’s unprecedented heat wave when nearly 100 people died from heat-related illnesses.

In the first week of this year’s short legislative session, lawmakers held public hearings on House Bill 4058, aimed at providing emergency heat relief services to low-income households and communities for color, and Senate Bill 1536, which allows renters to install air conditioning units in their homes. The bills have bipartisan support and are led by a coalition of environmental, climate, health and justice groups.

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The first of two bills would direct $5 million to the Oregon Health Authority to create an emergency distribution program that would deliver air conditioners and air filters to homes in need.

The bill would also allocate $10 million to the Oregon Department of Energy to create an incentive program to make it easier for vulnerable households to purchase energy-efficient heat pump cooling systems. The program would prioritize people with low-income, communities of color, rural and coastal communities, as well as those who use wood, oil and propane to heat their homes.

Katherine Morgan drinks water in front of a box fan while trying to stay cool in her downtown apartment without air conditioning on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Portland. People have headed to cooling centers as the Pacific Northwest began sweltering under another major, multi-day heat wave.

Katherine Morgan drinks water in front of a box fan while trying to stay cool in her downtown apartment without air conditioning on Thursday, Aug. 12, 2021, in Portland. People have headed to cooling centers as the Pacific Northwest began sweltering under another major, multi-day heat wave.

Nathan Howard / AP

During a public hearing before the House Environment and Natural Resources Committee, Oriana Magnera, a manager with the environmental justice nonprofit Verde, said the state needs to act now to prevent more heat-related deaths like the ones that happened during last year’s heat dome.

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“Most people who passed away had no access to lifesaving cooling devices such as air conditioning or heating and cooling pumps in their homes,” she said.

According to the Oregon State Medical Examiner’s Office, 96 people died from heat-related illness over five days of the heat wave last June, and 69 of those deaths occurred in Multnomah County. Of those deaths, many were older adults who were found alone in their homes, and all but eight of the deaths were in homes that did not have air-conditioned units.

“The effects of the heat wave were deeply inequitable and most harmed the people least able to seek or afford relief,” Magnera said.

Hundreds have sought shelter at a cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. The cooling center provided water, snacks, meals, blankets, and cots or mats for sleeping.

Hundreds have sought shelter at a cooling center at the Oregon Convention Center in Portland, June 28, 2021. The cooling center provided water, snacks, meals, blankets, and cots or mats for sleeping.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

HB 4058 will also direct the Oregon Public Utility Commission to find ways of alleviating spikes in energy bills during extreme weather events.

Magnera said many families avoid turning on their air conditioning units or running their heaters during moments of need because they’re afraid of it will increase their energy bills. She said families are having to choose between their health or fear of having their electricity disconnected for not having enough funds to pay their bills.

The second bill, Senate Bill 1536, would remove barriers for renters to install portable air conditioning units in their apartments and would require cooling systems in newly constructed rental units. The bill would also allocate $2 million to the Oregon Department of Human Services to create extreme weather relief centers such as cooling centers, warming centers and clean air shelters.

Oregon Environmental Council Climate Program Director Nora Apter, whose group supports both bills, said in a written statement that providing Oregonians access to energy-efficient electric heat pumps would not only help the community but also would help with the fight against climate change.

“They are effective at both heating and cooling homes, use less energy than traditional systems and cost less to run than lower efficiency alternatives,” she said. “They do not emit toxic air pollutants, and they produce less climate pollution than other heating and cooling appliances on the market.”

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