Portland’s first-of-its-kind climate justice program unveiled its five-year plan Thursday to invest hundreds of millions of dollars toward climate action.
The revealed plan increases focus on community resilience, transparency and accountability. That’s after the Portland City Council voted for a major overhaul of the fund after a series of setbacks last year.
The Portland Clean Energy Fund’s (PCEF) $750 million climate investment plan lays out how the city aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and ensure the residents most impacted by climate change are prepared. Under the fund framework, grants would go to a wide range of projects, from energy-efficient retrofits to adding renewable energy, to increasing incentives for electric vehicles.
“We’re unveiling our inaugural five-year climate investment plan which sets the stage for the investments that PCEF is going to be making over the next five years, totaling almost nearly three-quarters of a billion dollars into climate projects that address racial justice, social justice and economic justice.” Portland Clean Energy Fund program manager Sam Baraso said.
Thursday’s climate investment plan was built after nearly a year of climate research and multiple rounds of input from Portland residents, business, subject matter experts and community organizations.
Baraso said staff spent months learning where different sectors and government partners could most effectively work together. He said the goal was to find a balance of prioritizing efforts to address climate change while emphasizing racial and social justice.
“We spent the first round table meeting just making sure everyone at the table… [it] was grounded in what we were doing, what our objectives are, the purpose of PCEF,” Baraso said. “Really centering the fact that fundamentally PCEF is about climate action, but it is the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, and so making sure everyone really at a core understood that it is about climate and equity and those community benefits.”
Details of investment plan
The climate justice program has been celebrated as a first-of-its-kind environmental justice program created and led by communities of color. The fund is managed by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability after receiving approval from 65% of voters in 2018.
At the time of its passage, backers estimated the fund would generate between $40 to $60 million each year from a 1% tax on large retailers’ sales. The surcharge generated tens of millions more than anticipated. In its first two years, the fund has led to $145 million in grants that support climate action. Its latest round of community investment was the largest, granting $120 million to support clean energy projects. The fund expects to raise $750 million for additional investment through 2028.
If approved, the plan would immediately launch two strategic programs, totaling $100 million over the next five years. One of the programs would focus on adding energy-efficient and renewable energy technologies in new and redeveloped affordable multifamily housing. The goal is to reduce greenhouse gas emissions quicker, reduce energy costs and help improve residents’ health.
The second strategic plan would immediately begin planting trees in heat-vulnerable neighborhoods to increase tree canopy. The program estimates it will plant at least 25,000 trees in public and private property and provide maintenance.
The plan would also invest $50 million to make schools more resilient, which could include infrastructure upgrades, energy-efficient retrofits and supporting youth-led climate initiatives.
The plan will also make $20 million available for city bureaus and offices to use as leverage to get federal dollars aimed at climate action, like the Inflation Reduction Act and the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.
Despite the investment totaling nearly $1 billion in climate action in less than 10 years, the city needs about $50 billion dollars over the next 30 years to complete all the projects needed to meet the city’s climate goals, according to a city report.
“The urgent need to address the climate crisis is clear,” City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said in an emailed statement. “In the face of unprecedented climate disasters, we must make impactful investments to build a sustainable, climate-resilient city for future generations — especially communities that experience climate change first and disproportionately.”
Last October, Portland City Council voted for a major overhaul for the clean energy fund that would add more transparency and accountability on how the funds would be distributed. Those changes came after a series of setbacks for the fund, including a defamation lawsuit and a critical city audit. Last March, auditors found the fund lacked oversight and accountability, unclear administrative costs, and did not have climate goals needed to guide the city’s spending.
“A lot of the early critique is a gift to us. It gave us the opportunity to make a lot of adjustments and learn and we’ve been incredibly responsive to each of those bits of feedback,” Baraso said. “I think the audit wasn’t a setback, it was early and we agreed with our findings and we’ve been grateful for that guidance.”
Baraso said the audit helped bring balance between staff and partners to come together and create clear and measurable outcomes for the plan.
The draft plans will go to Portland City Council for a vote next month.