City Ballot Initiatives: A New Tool for Clean Energy Equity (Episode 58)

City Ballot Initiatives: A New Tool for Clean Energy Equity (Episode 58)

Date: 1 Nov 2018 | posted in: Building Local Power, Podcast | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In this episode, ILSR’s Co-Director, John Farrell, is joined by Alan Hipólito of Verde. Alan joins several activists in leading the fight for clean energy equity in Portland, Oregon. To move this goal at the local level, Verde participates in a coalition campaigning for an important ballot initiative this year.

The proposed policy could raise an impressive $30 million a year through a 1% surcharge levied on big business. It would help ensure an equitable transition to 100% renewable energy, a goal Portland committed to in 2017.

Alan and fellow organizers have brought together a broad coalition of grassroots organizations representing communities on the frontlines of climate change. Their efforts have resulted in more than 300 endorsement statements for the ballot initiative, more than any previous ballot initiative in Portland! With elections less than a week away, Alan explains why it’s critical to invest in climate solutions targeting low income and people of color.

 

There’s a great hunger in our communities for climate solutions that also address poverty and meet the growing income disparities that we see in our communities. We’ve seen tremendous support all the way across the board, from other mainstream environmental organizations, from labor — and that’s both service unions, public employee unions, and building trades —, housing organizations — so groups that advocate or provide affordable housing —, advocates for the homeless, faith communities, neighborhood associations. All the way across the board.

The vote takes place on November 6, and may set a precedent for how cities can fund equitable climate solutions.

 

John Farrell: Hello and welcome to Building Local Power, a podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. I’m John Farrell, ILSR Co-Director and head of our Energy Democracy Initiative. In this episode I interviewed Alan Hipólito of Verde, a nonprofit in the Cully neighborhood of Portland, Oregon. We discussed their landmark campaign with over 300 organizational endorsements on a city ballot initiative to invest in climate solutions targeting low income and people of color.

So across the country more than 80 cities of all sizes have adopted ambitious goals to generate 100% of their electricity from renewable sources, but very few of these cities have concrete plans how to get there. This week I talk with Alan Hipólito at Verde, a tax-exempt nonprofit in the Cully neighborhood of Portland about a powerful initiative that’s on the November 6 ballot to guide Portland towards meeting its 100% renewable energy commitment.

Alan, welcome to the program.

Alan Hipólito: Thank you. It’s great to be here. Appreciate it.
 

John Farrell:

Absolutely. Now, before we get in to the details of the ballot initiative. One, of the things I was curious to start with was just, what relationship does this ballot initiative have, to last years commitment by the city and the county, to get to one hundred percent renewable energy?
Alan Hipólito: That’s a great question and I’m happy to provide some background there. So, as you mentioned both Multnomah County and the city of Portland in 2017, advanced tandem 100% renewables resolutions and Verde along with a number of other frontline community-serving organizations. Like, The Coalition of Communities of Color, OPAL Environmental Justice Oregon, as well as a number of mainstream environmental organizations, were able to access those processes and really move the ball forward on the commitments the two resolutions made to meeting the needs [and] addressing the priorities low income people and people of color. We call them frontline communities because, as your readers know well, low income people and people of color are on the frontline of climate change in the United States and around the world.

There were really three commitments that we moved forward in the resolutions. The first was working with rate payer advocates to protect low income rate payers from price impacts during these transitions. The second, was, advancing workforce and contracting diversity goals. So, that workers and business from all communities have the opportunity to participate in the development and construction of our renewable energy infrastructure. But, then there was a third commitment, that, we think is especially connected to the Portland Clean Energy Initiative.

As, I mentioned we did some pretty good work on advancing workforce and contracting equity commitments in the resolutions. But, a lot of these projects that will be done will be very big scale projects. So, it will be done by, big contractors, big companies working at big institutions. And, there’s a lot of reasons why that make sense. But, that’s a difficult level for frontline communities to compete. So, we wanted to open up a new playing field for low income people and people of color and their community serving institutions to be a part of our transition 100% renewables. And, we called that “community-based renewable energy infrastructure.”

So, each resolution recognizes that that’s a model to ensure that the benefits of our transition are made available to low income people and people of color communities. Then each sets standards for what percentage of community-wide energy will come from community-based renewable energy infrastructure. Each of them says that by 2035, two percent of all the energy in the city of Portland — so, not just things that are owned by the city out right or city building — but, every unit of energy that’s consumed within the city, that two percent of all of that will come from this kind of infrastructure. And, then the city goes even further and says by 2050, 10 percent. So, one out of every ten units of energy in the city will be created by community-based renewable energy infrastructure. This is a massive transfer of generative capacity to the community level. The Portland Clean Energy Initiative is really of one of our first efforts to increase the toolkit. Both, in terms of funding, as well as policy, to give communities the opportunity to respond to that challenge.

John Farrell: So, one thing I think a lot of people ask when we talk about climate regulation or renewable energy is, why do we do this at the city level? You notice California’s done a lot of stuff at the state level. I believe there is a ballot initiative in Washington on climate at the state level. Obviously, there are some roles that the federal government can play, although I think you probably don’t need to answer that question for the federal level. Why is it important to tackle this at the city level?
Alan Hipólito: Well, I don’t think it’s an either or question. Climate change and poverty are gigantic issues and can’t be addressed simply at one level of government and not at others. And, indeed communities, particularly the communities that we’re talking about, low income people, people of color, people … who have been excluded from our transition to a sustainable economy. Certainly, we want to organize. Certainly, we want to build power at the state level. Certainly we want to organize. Certainly, we want to build power at the federal level. But, we also have limits to our capacity. And the areas — the most immediate level — where we can focus is our own neighborhoods and our own governments in the cities and towns and counties where we operate.

So, my response would be, it’s not either-or, and we need to recognize that local communities have capacity challenges to engage at these broader scales. We’ll be there one day, and this is part of a broader strategy to build power. But, also, we understand our communities best at the local level and can design responsive solutions at that level.

John Farrell: Now, I think you kind of alluded to this already. So, I’m going to read a quote from a story about the ballot initiative. It says that it’s raising funds for “solar panels and other projects aimed at addressing climate change, with a promise the resources will be target to low income and minority communities.” And, you’ve already alluded a little bit to why that’s important. You know, and also, I think, how that differs a lot from some of the efforts that we’re seeing in other communities, where they are looking more generally at simply: “How do we reach this numerical target?” Could you talk a little bit more about why we need that specific focus in the ballot language, in the policies that we pass, and what the benefits are that we reap from that?
Alan Hipólito: Sure, I would say a few things. One, there’s clearly the moral issue. Sustainability is based on these three pillars of environment, economy and equity. And, we’ve done, to varying degrees, good-ish jobs on environment and the economy side. But, we’ve left communities, particularly our more vulnerable communities, behind. And, as we know, these communities experience the worst and the most immediate impacts of climate change, whether that’s storms, floods, fires, heat waves, lost economic opportunities from climate events, health. You name it, across the board. So, that’s one.

But, what I think that 100% Renewable advocates, energy transition advocates, fail to recognize, often, is that the demographics of our country and our cities are changing. And, the 20th century model of moving environmental policy isn’t going to work anymore. Because, we just don’t have the numbers. And, I say this as someone who has worked on protecting the environment and serving community, my whole adult life. We don’t have the numbers. We can’t get… couldn’t get climate legislation through a Democratic House and Senate and a Democratic President under the Obama Administration. So, if we don’t bring new communities to the table and don’t serve those communities — one, we won’t win the policy battles. And, second, we’ll be leaving a whole segment of the marketplace unserved, and therefore leaving out all of the greenhouse gas emission reduction and renewable energy growth that could take place in those excluded communities.

John Farrell: Yeah, that’s a powerful story for the difference.
Alan Hipólito: So, there’s three things, Right? There’s moral, Right? We’re all humans, it’s one planet. We’re all here. We can’t leave other humans behind as we build little green utopia’s for people who can afford it. Second, the demographics are changing and we don’t have the numbers to win political and policy battles with our old model. And, third, the climate gains to be had from serving a shrinking demographic. Why would we prioritize that?
John Farrell: Now, one other thing I thought was really compelling and powerful about this ballot initiative was, there are other cities that have done similar things to essentially, you know… levy a tax, in order to do more work around climate. And, Boulder, Colorado, most famously did this about a decade ago with the country’s first locally levied climate tax. And, Minneapolis, Minnesota, has done something, more recently, where it’s been essentially an additional fee on electricity and gas users, broadly across the city, to add like two to three million dollars a year, for a city with a population of about a half million.

What I found amazing about this initiative for Portland was two pieces to it. One was the deliberate focus on a particular part of the population and in the shape of how the revenue is raised. And, another one is the magnitude. I would start with the magnitude, first, that this intended to raise like 30 million dollars a year. That’s something like ten times more than what these other cities have been pouring into climate work. So, I just wanted to note first of all the, the scale is impressive.

And, the second one is, could you tell me a little bit more about why, you know, the ballot measures is funded by a one percent tax on local gross receipts of retailers with national sales over a billion, if they do at least a half million in sales in Portland. So, you’re talking about big retailers that you’re targeting. Why did you pick that as part of the initiative? What’s the strategy there? And, what are the implications then, in terms of your political battle, to get this initiative passed come November 6th?

Alan Hipólito: Sure, well I would say a few things. First, retailers have, from a climate perspective, have very long supply chains. Those supply chains have greenhouse gas emission impacts, and they’re not accounted for. Second, retailers need to be physically in place to sell their goods and services to people. And so, trying to evade what’s often a made up argument of: “Well, if this passes, we’re gonna leave.” Right.

Thirdly, Oregon is actually a very business-friendly place. Seven out of every ten tax dollar in Oregon comes from individual taxes, not from corporate revenue. So, they have the resources to contribute, to pay their share, in what is clearly a society-wide, civilization-wide challenge.

And then, of course, in addition to that favorable treatment, they just received a roughly 40 percent tax cut from the federal government and the Trump Administration. So, they have the resources available to lean into the solution with us. And we’re not asking for a lot. One percent on their general revenues within the city of Portland for … If that company has $500,000 in local revenues, in addition, of course, to meeting the $1 billion national box they have to check as well, that’s just $5,000 on that $500,000, so we’re not … It’s a very targeted, very narrow, and devoted to very specific purposes, from companies that can afford it and that have climate impacts.

John Farrell: I wonder about what the reception has been like. And I’m thinking about, in particular, another recent ballot initiative or effort to tax big companies in Seattle, where they were saying — we have this desire to help the homeless population. We’re going to put a small tax on big companies in Seattle, and, you know, Amazon is just a gigantic precedent … presence, excuse me, in Seattle, and they managed to quash this. I’m curious, do you have other, either similar big businesses that are presenting a problem, or other political opponents that have made this particularly challenging?
Alan Hipólito: Sure, so I would say a few things. First. I have to state that the official ballot language calls it a “surcharge,” and so I’m going to call it a surcharge. Second, I think there’s some distinguishing factors between what happened in Seattle and what’s happening here in Portland, as I understand it. First and primarily, the Seattle effort was led by the city, led by the city council. And in our case, this is community-led. This idea, the initiative, the organizing around it, is by and of front-line community-serving organizations, in alignment with mainstream environmental groups. So again, groups that serve the Latinx community, Asian-Pacific Islander community, the Native community, African-American community, immigrant communities, together with familiar environmental partners like your Audobon Society, your Sierra Club, your 350PDX, Columbia River Keeper, Physicians for Social Responsibility…

So the genesis, the origin of the idea and how it’s been brought before voters, brought before the public, is very different. I would also say that the, in part, because of where we came from and how we built this, and because, frankly, there’s a great hunger, I think, in our communities for climate solutions that also address poverty and meet the growing income disparities that we see in our communities. We’ve seen tremendous support all the way across the board, from other mainstream environmental organizations, from labor — and that’s both service unions, public employee unions, and building trades —, housing organizations — so groups that advocate or provide affordable housing —, advocates for the homeless, faith communities, neighborhood associations. All the way across the board. We submitted 307 endorsement statements to the voters’ pamphlet, and the voter’s pamphlet deadline was September 10th, that’s the most that they’ve ever received before.

Now that doesn’t mean we don’t have opposition. We do. Our primary opposition is what I would call an “astroturf” group, or a front group called “Keep Portland Affordable.” And they are associated with the Portland Business Alliance, which is kind of like our Chamber of Commerce. And they’ve begun to receive contributions. We’ve just entered into the seven-day reporting period, where campaigns have to report contributions with seven days. And we’re starting to see donations from groups like Amazon, US Bank, WalMart, Comcast. So the opposition is showing up and they’re going to come after us, particularly, we think, in large media buys. Their ground game is not the same as ours, of course, because we’re community-based. So, we can’t beat them at their game, but we can beat them at our game, which is community-based, grassroots, networks.

And so, for your listeners who want to find out more and want to support us they can certainly go to our website portlandcleanenergyinitiative.com. But also, it’s important that they follow us on their social media of choice, whether they’re Instagram folks or Facebook people or Twitter. To follow us, to re-tweet, or to post to their friends and followers that they’re following us, because that’s how we’re gonna amplify and get our message out as we compete for voter’s attention moving towards November 6th.

John Farrell: Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of Building Local Power. This is the part of a podcast where you usually hear something about a mattress company or a meal preparation service. Instead, as an organization committed to advancing local economies, we don’t accept nation advertising. But we do hope you’ll consider making a donation to ILSR. Not only does your support underwrite this podcast but it also helps us produce all the resources and research we make available for free on our website. Please take a minute and go to ilsr.org/donate. Any amount is welcome and sincerely appreciated. That’s ilsr.org/donate. We also value your reviews on stitcher, itunes or wherever you get your podcasts. Thank you so much and now back to the interview.

So, it sounds like in a way, as we sometimes call them here, the “usual suspects” are aligning against us. Which is to say, the big national companies, for whom they have a sort of a limited investment and interest in Portland, as a unique community, and rather, is just one other place that they have a subsidiary or a chain.

I’m curious about some of the incumbent large businesses, and I’m thinking about the utility companies, whether it’s a gas utility or an electric utility. I know there’s been some discussion and contention with them about how far they’re going around renewable energy. I think I read something about the electric company saying, “Oh, we’re going to close the coal plant, but then we want to build a gas plant.” Are they much involved in this and has there been a lot of work related to this initiative or to your work on the 100% renewables with regard to the utility companies, and where are they positioned?

Alan Hipólito: So, it’s important to emphasize that in the initiative content, right as you mentioned, the surcharge covers large retailers and the first threshold criteria, as you shared, is that they have to have over a billion in national revenues, as well as, $500,000, at least $500,000, in local revenues in the city of Portland. And then through two different mechanisms we exempt some things. So, on one hand we exempt sales of groceries, which we use the SNAP or food stamp definition for what’s a grocery — groceries, medicine, and health services. So, a potentially covered entity would deduct sales of those items from its general revenues before any surcharge would be calculated, right. And then, we exempt outright, for various reasons, co-ops, credit unions, manufactures, and utilities. So, utilities are not covered by the initiative and have remained neutral to-date in the initiative.
John Farrell: Yeah, so, in Georgetown, Texas, where they have a municipal electric utility, for example — they made the switch to renewable energy because it was actually cheaper than buying power from fossil fuel sources. In turn, Pueblo, Colorado, they haven’t reached their 100% goal. They’ve just set it recently, but they have a lot, or a fairly high portion of low and moderate income residents in their community. They’re very concerned about the cost of energy. A natural gas plant, for example, was built there fairly recently by the utility company, and it has raised rates and made energy relatively expensive. So, they’re very concerned about how do we keep energy affordable on the consumer side of things. And what I’ve heard in what you’re talking about, a little bit and want to just tease out a bit, is I don’t hear you so much saying, “We’re gonna focus on affordability as the consumer,” but “We’re looking at how do we, as we push towards 100% renewables, share the wealth essentially of the investments we’re going to make to reach this goal.” Is that … Am I capturing that accurately?
Alan Hipólito: If you’re looking at it in the narrow sense of the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, I would say that’s generally true. Although, we have a great focus on reducing the energy expenses of low income people. For example, in the Cully Neighborhood, where Verde is located, as you mentioned, we have six mobile home parks in the Cully Neighborhood.

Roughly 10 percent of all of the residents in Cully live in those six mobile home parks. And we, together with groups like St. Charles Church, St. Vincent de Paul, do a lot of organizing and service work in those mobile home parks. We’re finding folks there paying 200 [dollars] a month to heat their homes in the winter. So, we are very conscious of wanting to reduce expenses for low-income households because, especially for low income to the very lowest income people, even a 20, 30, 40 dollar savings a month — to say nothing of how much you could reduce a $200 a month heating bill — makes a tremendous difference in their lives.

So narrowly within the context of the Portland Clean Energy Initiative, I would say we’re mostly concerned about prices to those who are carrying high energy burdens. Writ large, in the broader 100 percent renewable, we are concerned with the cost that low-income rate payers are paying, and we did work very diligently with the CAP agencies, the advocates for low-income rate payers, for low-income weatherization programs, to insert those commitments, to hold low-income rate payers harmless in this transition. So, I would say those concerns are there, and they just have a different level of focus, depending on the scale that we’re at.

John Farrell: Alan, I wanted to make sure that I, in my haste to have time to set up this interview, that I didn’t miss a chance to ask you a question that you wanted to be able to answer about this. Is there anything else that we should know about this initiative that would be helpful for folks who are doing this work in other places?
Alan Hipólito: Well, thank you. That’s a generous offer. I would say that what we’re doing here can happen anywhere. And it can happen in any energy, or climate, or environmental policy, or practice, or initiative, and that is when you begin by centering low-income people and people of color. When you begin by centering the growing, changing demographics in our cities and in our country. You’re starting from a base that helps ensure the level of political support, you’re going to need to be successful, and accountability to broader societal needs and challenges. When we segregate or isolate our environmental solutions from our other social issues like housing, poverty, health, we’re operating in a silo. We’re operating in a vacuum. And it becomes something that those people are working on over there, but it doesn’t make a difference in my life. But when we integrate into broader concerns and we center the frontline communities, our chances for success and for responsive solutions grows tremendously.

And I would urge folks to check out the literature. Check out the polling, because poll after poll — whether it’s state polls in California, national polls, or even polls that the Portland Business Alliance did here in the City of Portland — show that communities of color support environmental regulations and policies at higher levels than the general population, including their willingness to see government pay for those policies and solutions. So, this is the future. Get on board.

John Farrell: I love it. My last question for you, Alan, is just in terms of … and I sort of had generically written this down as your advice to others, although I think you have just given a very useful piece of advice … Maybe just a more targeted piece of advice that you could offer to, as you mentioned, those traditional, mainstream environmental groups — who are doing climate work, who have thought for a long time about passing this or that state policy, or working at the federal level. What’s the first thing that they can do in their work to start, as you said, centering low-income folks and people of color? Does it start with a phone call, with an email? What is it that’s really going to get them to start turning and thinking about, “How do I get out of this silo?”
Alan Hipólito: Wow. That’s a great and very deep … that’s a really deep question. There’s no shortcut, but that’s fine because I would say most environmental organizations, as well as civil rights and social justice organizations, understand and appreciate the need to commit to long-term work to achieve change.

And I would say that environmentalists do need to be conscious of their political power, their access, their privilege. For example, they have relationships with elected officials, policymakers, funders, that can be brought to bear to meet the needs and serve low-income and people of color communities. And, so, what we always say is the best thing is for mainstream environmental organizations to do the hard work of building relationships with organizations on the ground serving communities of color. And that relationship might bear very little in what you would consider externally measurable fruit. It’s not going to be something you can put an output in your grant chart, your grant flowchart, that you have to turn into your funder.

It’s the slow organic work of saying, “Hey. This is who we are,” in a sort of a perspective of deference and respect that we always encourage organizations to reach out to the frontline community-serving organization. We’re in every city, doing important work every day, and say, “Hey. I work for this group. We’re good at some things, like we know a lot about …” — I don’t know — “… air quality, water quality, energy policy. We’ve got good relationships with these elected officials, or this agency, or these funders, but we really want to be of service to your community. And so I’m here wanting to start a relationship with you in hopes that, over time, we can figure out the way that the work that I do, in my organization, can be of service to the work that you do in your organization.” And then, “I understand it’s going to take time and trust, and I know lots of people come through that door and say, ‘Hey. I’m from so-and-so, and I’m here to help.’ And I just want to make a commitment and ask for the opportunity to prove that we’re serious about helping.”

And then see what happens.

John Farrell: Alan, you mentioned the term “privilege” in this last part of our conversation, and I just wanted to say that it has been my privilege to talk to you about this work in Portland.
Alan Hipólito: That’s very kind of you. It’s very nice of you.
John Farrell: I wish you the best of luck on November 6th. And I will be sharing about your work on social media from afar, here in Minneapolis, and will encourage other folks to do the same — about how we can be successful at a local level and bring climate justice to everyone.
Alan Hipólito: Thank you so much. I do appreciate it, and we look forward to everyone’s support through the Portland Clean Energy Initiative.
John Farrell: Thank you for tuning into this episode of the Building Local Power podcast from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. Today’s interview explored the landmark ballot initiative in Portland, Oregon in an interview with Alan Hipólito of Verde. You can find the links to what we discussed today by visiting ilsr.org and clicking on the Building Local Power show page for this episode. That’s ilsr.org. While you’re there you can sign up for one of our many newsletters and connect with us on social media. Finally, you can help us out with a donation that helps produce this podcast and tons of original research on the way cities are taking charge of their local economies. This show is produced by Lisa Gonzalez and Hibba Meraay. Our theme music is Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL. For the Institute for Local Self Reliance I’m John Farrell and I hope you join us again in two weeks for the next episode of Building Local Power.

 

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Photo Credit: Portland Clean Energy Intitiative

Audio Credit: Funk Interlude by Dysfunction_AL Ft: Fourstones – Scomber (Bonus Track). Copyright 2016 Licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution Noncommercial (3.0) license.

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Hibba Meraay manages communications for the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. She works closely with all of our initiatives to build community power and combat monopolies. A native New Englander, Hibba is a graduate of Boston University. Contact Hibba for media inquiries.