Voices of 100%: In Case of Emergency, Break Down Barriers to Net Zero — Episode 131 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 3 Jun 2021 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Portland, Ore. may have been the first city in the United States to adopt a carbon reduction strategy, but in January 2020, its smaller neighbor Milwaukie became the first city in Oregon to declare a climate emergency.

For this episode of our Voices of 100% series of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Mayor Mark Gamba and Climate Action and Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Rogers of Milwaukie, Oregon. Gamba and Rogers explain how in the last 18 months, Milwaukie declared a climate emergency, accelerated its climate action goals, and has partnered with its utility to reach them.

Listen to the full episode and explore more resources below — including a transcript and summary of the conversation.

Natalie Rogers: But Green Future Impact. When we first started talking about it, the price just kept crawling lower and lower. And I think it’s because as you start to build out these solar arrays of these sizes, so I believe the Green Future Impact solar array is above 300 megawatts. So it’s a pretty big one. As you build it out and essentially account for more of those panels, it just, the price keeps going lower. So when we signed our 15 year contract, I think it was about one 10th of a cent for our price. But then, even in the last few months we heard news that there was another participant which lowered it down to a 0.7, five tenths of a cent premium on top of the base rate.
John Farrell: In the small Oregon city of Milwaukie, a recent climate emergency declaration motivated the city to move up its clean energy goals by five years. But can it meet the more ambitious targets? In this Voices of 100% series podcast I’m joined by Milwaukie mayor Mark Gamba and Climate Action and Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Rogers. In this conversation from March 2021, we talk about the integration of climate and clean energy with the city’s long-term vision, the participation of the community, and the successful partnership with the city’s energy utilities. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance and this is Local Energy Rules, a bi-weekly podcast sharing powerful stories about local, renewable energy. Mayor Gamba and Natalie, welcome to the program.
Natalie Rogers: Thank you.
Mark Gamba: Hi there. Good to be here.
John Farrell: Just to start off Mayor Gamba, I spent a few minutes enjoying the photos on your photography website, and I was just kind of curious if photography, you do a lot of like beautiful landscapes, including the background you have for our conversation here, that our listeners won’t see. But as you mentioned old growth forests in Oregon, has that had any role in your strong commitment to climate action as mayor of Milwaukie?
Mark Gamba: Very much. So I was a professional photo journalist before I ran for office and one of my clients was National Geographic. And so I spent a fair amount of time in various parts of the world, seeing all, all different kinds of regions and natural areas. And I started to see, I was aware of climate change. I’d read, uh, the end of nature a year or two after that was written. And I’d been following sort of the science and thoughts on climate change and all the predictions really saying that we should start seeing these effects decades in the future. And I was already seeing things like glaciers that had receded miles in Alaska and coral reefs in the great barrier reef that were starting to bleach. And no one was sure at that point that, that, that was the cause. But that was certainly one of the things they brought up when I would ask why, you know, is this normal? Or, and they’d say, no, uh, we’re not sure entirely, but we think it might be that the, in the case of the coral reef, the water is starting to warm and it doesn’t function in that heat. And so it’s going to start killing the coral reefs. So I was seeing that clear back in the nineties, late nineties. And so when the main climate champion in Congress lost to an oil man for president of the United States, I became pretty depressed that, you know, our country wasn’t taking seriously, what is clearly the greatest threat to humanity that we’ve ever had. And it really kind of put me in a tailspin for several years until I decided to get involved locally and just try and start doing that work at that level.
John Farrell: So yeah, let’s dive in a little bit to that work. So Milwaukie has made a sort of three tier climate and energy goal: net zero electricity by 2030, net zero buildings by 2035, and being carbon neutral by 2045. Could you talk about what that impact looks like in practice to reach those goals and why the city voted to move up its targets just last year?
Mark Gamba: Yeah, well, we, we did our climate action plan before the IPCC report came out and that made it abundantly clear that our original dates, which were five years later than the current ones, were not going to be fast enough. We weren’t going to be doing the work we needed to do soon enough. So we declared a state of emergency and climate state of emergency. And then we created the targets that we currently have. Those targets sort of address the different factors in our, in our city. So building energy of course is a big piece. And if we can cause all of the electricity being generated for the city to be a hundred percent renewable and whether that’s occurring inside the city, which we think is a good idea, just from a standpoint of, of hardening our systems, because as climate change progresses, the horrific storms like we had a few weeks ago are going to be more commonplace.

But we also know that solar is a whole lot cheaper and a whole lot more effective if we can build it on the other side of the mountains and then transport that energy. So we’re not super particular about where, where that energy comes from, as long as it’s renewable. And then the second goal around building energy, as I’m sure you know, there’s a lot of folks that use natural gas for maybe their heating, hot water, to cook with… Natural gas is often touted as a bridge fuel, but that’s kind of a misnomer. It’s, it’s lower in, you know, CO2 when it’s burned, but the upstream losses of methane from the drill sites, in transportation, and storage, and then in distribution are one of the factors, if not the single factor that caused all the early models on climate change to be off. That’s why I was seeing the effects earlier than I was seeing it. If you use the factor of 84 times as powerful a greenhouse and the factor of the reality of losses of about 10% and then do the models over with those numbers, all of a sudden you start seeing the models in alignment with reality. So we know that’s a little bit bigger lift it’s, it’s going to be harder for Northwest Natural, which is our local utility, to shift. There are certainly opportunities and we are pressing them very hard to begin to move in that direction. They’ve invested somewhat. They are, we’ve hired, I think six staffers that are working on their green hydrogen program that they hope to start including in their mix. There were pretty bullish already on collecting all the methane that’s produced at the dairies and landfills and sewage treatment plants and getting those into the mix.

So there’s an opportunity for Northwest Natural to get to net zero, but, um, it’s going to be a big lift. And then the last one is, is really the hardest one of all, which is to be carbon neutral by 2045. And the reason for that is that when you look at our, at our footprint as a city, and I think this is true of every other city, you have all the things, right? Transportation and building energy and industrial and all these things. And that stacks up to a big old stack of greenhouse gases. And then what’s the rest of it? It’s, it’s all the stuff we buy, right? It’s the, the manufacturing and the creation and the mining and all the things that go into all the stuff we buy. And that stack is literally as big as all of those other things put together. And so shifting our economy and causing manufacturers to build cradle to cradle appliances and, and all of the things we use, that’s going to be the biggest lift of all, but it’s, it’s work that has to be done. And that’s the work that’s going to be hardest for a small city to do. It’s really going to have to happen at national and international levels. But I think when cities put out that goal and talk about it, it starts to help create that message.

John Farrell: So then you said, one of the things I thought was really interesting in learning more about your experience in Milwaukie was that you had this community vision process about five years ago to develop the climate action plan, to inform this process that you’re going through. Can you explain why that was an important starting point with the community conversation and how it helped to shape the goals that you said?
Mark Gamba: You know, I, as I said, I got on council in the first place to do this work. So, and I knew enough people in town that I was pretty clear that a majority of, of Milwaukie residents would, would support it. Some of the members of my council were less sure of that. And coincidentally 2015 was, our last vision sort of ended, right? It was the 2015 vision that had been done back in 85 or 95, whenever it had been done, it worked out timing wise that we needed a new vision anyway, and being able to go through that process really robustly and reach out to the whole community from, from teenagers to Rotarians, do every person, uh, as much as we could within the community and get their feedback. And then we had a really great committee pulled together to do that work. And we wrote, I think, a really extraordinary vision. The opening line of the vision says something like “in 2040 Milwaukie is a flourishing city that is entirely equitable, delightfully livable, and completely sustainable. And I think any city that’s working with that lens, that’s making all of their decisions with, with those three lenses, is definitely going to be making the right decisions on, on everything they do from land use, to transportation, to affordable housing, all of the things. But our vision is pretty robust and, and outlined all of them, all of those areas. And so it really set us up nicely to do, uh, again, a really robust climate action planning process. And I think we’ve come up with one of the best climate action plans that I’ve seen. And there are other cities and counties right now that are using ours as a model on their work.
John Farrell: That’s great. Do you know it, just out of curiosity, do you know if those other cities not, are only are thinking of your plan document itself as a model, but also the process that you went through?
Mark Gamba: In, the conversations I’ve had, I think so. I tried to help them understand, the ones that I’ve had conversations with, that part of what makes a good climate action plan work is that the rest of the community is, is coming along with you. That it’s not just the city council and a handful of people, advocates that are for this, but it’s, but it’s the majority of the people in the city. And, you know, there’s a certain amount of education that’s involved in that. And I’m trying to remember, I think we did two or three town halls on climate and they were super well attended and we filmed them and, and people have since watched those. So the education piece of it is, is a big deal.
John Farrell: I wanted to ask you a little bit about some of the progress that you’re making. You already mentioned with the gas company, some of the things that they’re talking about. In a 2018 interview, you talked about working with the utility companies around renewable energy, and you talked about having acres of flat roofs that you hoped that could be covered with solar could be used for micro grids or community solar projects. I was curious about what kind of progress you’ve made in terms of getting more of that done. For example, in your community climate action plan, it specifically mentions 2.2 megawatts of solar through a Solarize program. By, by this year, I was just curious what kind of progress you’re making.
Mark Gamba: So Natalie will correct me when I get the numbers wrong, but we, I think we’ve surpassed that goal, that specific number, I think we’re at 2.3 or 2.5 megawatts… Natalie?
Natalie Rogers: Yeah, right around there. We, uh, we hit our goal as of, I think January of this last year. So right on time for our 2.2 megawatts by 2021. And one element of that was a Solarize campaign where we were helping kind of with residential solar installations. But, uh, there’s a few other accomplishments in our community like Waverly Greens, which is a, the largest solar array in, in our electric utility’s territory, 400 KW right Mayor?
Mark Gamba: It’s, it’s at the max that it’s allowed to be. So there’s a crazy preemption on rooftop solar arrays being any larger than that. They literally had to take some, or some solar panels out of their array design because they were producing too much electricity.
Natalie Rogers: Yeah. And so, you know, we have a really, we have a pretty well- affective relationship with our local electric utility and we’re both promoting, I mean, rooftop solar is, is pretty well promoted in our community, just in general. I mean, I know at the farmer’s markets, I always see solar developers having a table there. But on top of that, there’s a lot of incentives through Energy Trust of Oregon, which helps fund some solar for, particularly businesses and larger organizations. So there’s a lot of monetary incentives for some of these larger arrays as well. And every year, as, as solar goes down in price, it just becomes more and more cost-effective, uh, in our region for those arrays to go up. So I wouldn’t be surprised if we adjust this solar goal and, and have another one in the future. And we’re always looking to have new campaigns to help promote renewable energy in Milwaukie.
Mark Gamba: So my original vision of seeing all those flat industrial roofs covered in solar hasn’t come to pass yet. The community solar program that Oregon produced, while the bill was fine, the follow through has not been great. And the rules make it far less useful than it could have been. So we’re looking for other opportunities. Part of the issue is that in that industrial area, there’s a lot of those buildings that are rented by somebody other than, so they’re not the owner. So even if the tenant wants to have a solar array on the roof, they have the problem of, they don’t own the building. We’re exploring some opportunities around that, but so far, yeah, there’s, there’s not any giant solar arrays on the industrial roofs in Milwaukie.
Natalie Rogers: I will say that what our utility PGE does have a, a product called Green Future Impact, which is for large commercial, industrial, essentially large loads to take advantage of. And what that is, is it’s an aggregation product where for a 10 or 15 year contract, they essentially built out or are building out a new solar array east of the cascades. And so Milwaukie signed on for a hundred percent of our city load for this product. So we’re at a hundred percent operational carbon free electricity, which is really exciting. And other large commercial entities can take advantage of it if they don’t want to place a solar array or have any generation onsite, but they still want the value of carbon-free electricity.
John Farrell: Can I just ask a quick follow-up on that? I, I’m always very curious about these kinds of programs. Well, how did the price to participate in that compare to just taking regular electricity from PGE? Yeah,
Natalie Rogers: Yeah that’s a, that’s a great question. So before, when the city was participating and TGS clean wind product, which was an unbundled renewable energy credit product powered by wind, which is still a great option. You know, that was about three tenths of a cent per kilowatt hour. And so if you think about, uh, a residential energy, renewable energy product, that’s more eight tenths of a cent. So already, kind of, commercial entities get a good deal just based on the load that you’re purchasing, but green future impact. When we first started talking about it, the price just kept crawling lower and lower. And I think it’s because as you start to build out these solar rays of these sizes, so I believe the Green Future Impact solar array is above 300 megawatts. So it’s a pretty big one. As you build it out and essentially account for more of those panels, it just, the price keeps going lower. So when we signed our 15 year contract, I think it was about one 10th of a cent for our price. But then even in the last few months, we heard news that there was another participant, which lowered it down to 0.7, five tenths of a cent premium on top of the base rate. So it’s astounding how cheap it is for particularly large organizations and businesses to take advantage of products like this.
John Farrell: Thanks for taking the dive on that. I’m just always very curious because what we see in a lot of conversations broadly is that folks, they all, solar and wind are the cheapest new electricity resources. So it’s always interesting to see how utilities will turn around and offer these products and good to hear that the price is pretty comparable given that these are low cost resources for them too.
John Farrell: We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, we talk about the issues of state preemption and a chance to aggregate the city’s customers to buy cleaner electricity and the way the city is focused on co-benefits of emissions reductions is a more equitable and sustainable city. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Mayor Mark Gamba and Climate Action and Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Rogers from Milwaukie, Oregon, about the city’s climate and clean energy goals.

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John Farrell: One of the things you’ve talked about in some of the climate work is about state preemption. You also have mentioned, like the cap on the solar projects, 400 kilowatts. I’m curious in what ways the state, or the utility, or policy, like that restricts measures that you would otherwise want to take to advance the city’s net zero energy goals? Like what do you wish you could do if it wasn’t preempted?
Mark Gamba: Yeah, there’s probably a long list of those, but I’ll, I’ll touch on the one that we’re working really hard on right now. We have a bill in coordination with.. What are we up to now? Seven or eight other cities and a group called the Zero Coalition to create a, a new building code pathway. Because one of the things that we’re preempted from doing is having our own building code. So even if we want to have a more energy efficient building code, we are not allowed to do that. So the process that we’re going through is to set it up so that the cities that would like to can opt into a reach code and the reach code would be guaranteed to be, at minimum, 10% more efficient than the base code is for that cycle. And then it would, every three years it would become more efficient. Our intent is that by 2030, we’re at net zero. The beauty of that is that the base code will then follow in the second, in the next cycle. Whatever was the reach code in the first cycle will now become the base code in the second cycle and so on. So that would put net zero for all building codes at 2033.
Natalie Rogers: And it streamlines the process for local municipalities to adopt that reach code as our base code. And essentially just particularly a lot of these challenges for climate and for carbon free electricity and energy really hits hard for small communities that don’t have the resources or the staff expertise to make change and be able to engage in some of these really technical conversations. So building code is one of them where you need to, if you’re to write your own building code, you’d have to have somebody on staff who can do that. What this process would do is it would streamline it. So a municipality could, or a local jurisdiction on the county could adopt the reach code as their base code without having to write their own new code. So that, that really helps small communities implement these big climate action changes. So Milwaukie’s very excited about it.
Mark Gamba: And then the other one that we’re working on that we also have a bill in conjunction with PGE this year is to be able to negotiate for renewable energy for the entire city, not just city operations, but for all, all residents, all businesses, besides maybe two or three of the large industrial businesses. And instead of having that be an opt in system where people can say, yes, I would like to, to join that, the city council would negotiate that deal. Everyone would have it. And if you chose not to have it, you could opt out. And it’s really a giant difference in how many people will be involved in something like that. They’ve been doing that in Utah now for a while. And the difference is pretty extraordinary in the number of the uptake. So what that does that’s very beneficial to rate payers is that it drives down the price initially of the, whatever the premium is. But as Natalie has just pointed out, the premiums on these renewable systems are dropping dramatically all the time. One of the things that we would like in this bill is that if, if our green energy becomes cheaper than their, their base load, uh, that we actually benefit from that, that our citizens actually get a reduction. We’ll see how that works out.
John Farrell: I’m absolutely fascinated by the fact that you’re working with the utility on a bill like this, because in some of the other states like California, where they have sometimes called community choice aggregation or community choice energy, the utilities opposed it vociferously for years and years and years. So I’m just kind of curious, it’s delightful to hear that you’ve got a utility, that’s thinking about this. What do you think they see as the upside in terms of, of this, in terms of like having you being able to like aggregate the load and negotiate with them?
Mark Gamba: They’re in control of that. I mean, that’s the thing they fear and, and really the Damocles sword that we are using to help spur them along a little bit is CCAs. They, they desperately fear CCAs. And so if they are involved in the process and they can help control that, it, I, and understandably so, right. They, they are the ones that have to balance the load. They’re the ones that have to keep everything functioning. And it is not an easy process. I’ve been inside their giant computer room that, where they make all that magic happen, and it’s impressive. Them having more control over the process is why they’re very interested in working with us to do this. And they know, you know, PGE in particular, probably 70% of the people that live in PGE territory want the green as possible energy they can get. And so PGE knows that they’re headed that direction one way or the other, and having cities like Milwaukie that are interested in doing things like this just helps give them a little bit of backing politically, to move faster than say, you know, the least risk, uh, least cost, uh, methodology for determining what, what decisions to make next.
Natalie Rogers: And the key with this one is that, you know, we’re working in partnership with the utility instead of kind of the city meaning to go out and procure its own renewable sources. So this essentially would be a, uh, it’s still a voluntary product that just on top of our renewable portfolio standards that’s already required from the state to reach a hundred percent carbon free electricity for a community. But the difference is just that instead of opt in voluntary product, it’s an opt-out voluntary product that can be designed with the community’s values in mind. So hearing from PGE, they said already about 50% of the cities in their territory have climate action plans with these energy goals. And so, and they’re expecting that to go up to 70% in the future. And so it’s really to their economic benefit If they start to work with communities that develop the products that we’re already calling for and our policies. And so far, you know, PGE has been a fantastic partner. They’re a very progressive utility and the legislation that we’re working on will extend this opportunity to other utilities in the state as well, because, you know, there’s a lot of communities, uh, even, you know, east of the Cascades, working with different utilities, that want this also progressive product. So we’re excited to, to work with them on that.
Mark Gamba: Yeah. And this is somewhat of a change. I mean, before the new CEO, Maria Pope took over conversations like this were not as fruitful, but Maria is very much on board with, with this direction and understands entirely how fast we need to move and how far we have to move to save our society.
Natalie Rogers: And I will say PGE too has a hundred, they have an aspirational goal of a hundred percent carbon neutral by 2040 for a  utility. So, you know, this is also in alignment with their goals as well.
John Farrell: Sorry, I had to ask one other question about just cause I have written an entire report on community choice and just want to understand the specifics, but so that would allow, the bill would allow for aggregation, but PGE would still supply the product, right? You’re not shopping around and somewhat market and buying power from someone else. What you’re able to do though, is you’re able to pull together all your residents and say, we’re going to go buy this greener product from PGE. Right?
Natalie Rogers: So what it would allow PGE to do is essentially account for a larger purchase off the bat for an opt out versus opt in product. And then you use that economy of scale to go get an affordable price for a renewable product. The community can work with their utility to essentially customize what type of energy they want, where do they want it, is there any other resiliency aspects that they want folded into this rate? And then essentially within a jurisdiction accounts with your utility would be opted, like, they would become that new product and then they could choose the opt-out. And so it’s really nice because you know, each community around a region that has its own unique values and goals. For example, if you have community-based generation requirements, there’s nothing in this language that says that you can’t require the solar arrays to be built within your jurisdiction. But you know, it’s up to the community to talk to their community members and their leaders and figure out what are the values, what’s important. Affordability is really important for Milwaukie. And so, and then design the appropriate product accordingly. It’s really customizable. It’s essentially design your own product with your utility rather than going the CCA route, where you kind of have to go do the, your own procurement and do all the legwork, which once again is a big barrier for small communities.
John Farrell: Right. Right. Yeah. That’s super interesting.
Mark Gamba: To show an example of, of what part of what’s in our negotiations on this is that we want to make sure that low-income residents in Milwaukie can partake of this product and not be dinged for it. It won’t cost them more. So we’ll absorb the premium into an aggregate that out to the rest of the community so that low-income folks can be included as well. So that, you know, there’s, there’s a lot of different ways that any city could customize their system that they, that they want to have.
John Farrell: That’s a great transition to this question. I wanted to ask you about the co-benefits that are talked about in the community climate action plan. So this is a component of the action plan that talks about things other than just, you know, reaching the city’s climate and carbon goals. Can you talk about how co-benefits are used in shaping the city’s action, such as for example, there’s a social equity co-benefit that you talk about?
Natalie Rogers: Particularly when you’re working on the ground with, with folks in the community, there are some people who really do value that environmental and climate benefits of any of the actions that we do talking about renewable energy, talking about, uh, emissions reductions. There’s folks that, that, that really resonates with, and there’s other folks who have other priorities and it might not resonate well with them. So talking about co-benefits is a really great way for people to realize that oftentimes, uh, sustainability and climate action has a wealth of other contributions to the community beyond just emissions reductions. In particular, thinking about, you know, equity and environmental justice. When you’re talking about emissions reductions and transportation electrification, you’re also talking about air quality improvements along high traffic corridors, which are often right next to low income housing. And so, you know, there’s disproportionate burdens to front line communities for climate action. So when we can really address, why are we doing these climate actions in the community from a variety of different lenses, but equity, housing, affordability, and climate, you know, it really helps resonate in the community and it helps us justify the work that we’re doing.

And this, you know, this also extends to other environmental components. So some communities, they might not have emissions goals, but they have canopy goals. So Milwaukie has a 40% covered by 2040. Well, planting trees is one of the easiest things you can do to both, uh, sequester carbon and improve community health. And so they might not be able to justify planting trees for just simply carbon sequestration, but you can definitely justify planting trees for the fact that it just improves the aesthetics of your community. It shades your community, it provides health benefits to your community members. So those are the co-benefits that really help us both justify the climate actions that we’re doing, but then also really help them resonate with the community members for, for why we’re taking the steps to do this.

Mark Gamba: Yeah, another really good example is our safe program, which is building out our bike and pedestrian infrastructure throughout our city to make it safe and comfortable and fun for any, for families to be able to ride their bikes or walk, for kids, to be able to get to school without being driven to school by their mom, you know, six blocks or eight blocks. And then the mom’s parked in front of the school there and that creeping along in that line waiting to drop off their kids. And then they come back around and do it again at three o’clock in the afternoon. It’s not, and we know for a fact that kids do better in school if they get a little bit of exercise during the day and walking and biking to school is the perfect example for that. And so if we can make our systems so safe that parents feel comfortable with their kids walking and biking to school, that’s a co-benefit, right? The kids do better in school. The parents have less of their time, you know, by that they’re not burning their pocket book on gasoline, sitting idling in front of the school, all of those things.
John Farrell: That’s great. I really appreciate that example. Uh, I know one of the things that I saw reading up on the work that you’re trying to do is that your goal is to make Milwaukie the most bike-able and walkable city in the state within nine years. And so obviously a lot of overlap there between the, as you said, the safety goals and the climate goals. I think that’s really terrific. I think that kind of leads into my last question for you, which is what advice do you have for other cities, whether in Oregon or other places about how to pursue climate and clean energy goals?
Mark Gamba: The first piece of advice I would give is that A. it’s not that hard, B. it’s not that expensive, and it’s not going to destroy your city’s budget. We are currently funding Natalie’s position and some of the other work that we’re doing out of the general fund, and it’s, it’s not a giant lift. And at some point we will determine a way to self- fund this work. A lot of cities will say, yeah, we should probably do something like that, but our budgets are tight and particularly cities in Oregon because we have the stupidest tax laws on the planet. And so every city in Oregon is, is slowly creeping towards bankruptcy. So people get very concerned about anything that’s going to cost anything on their city money, but part of Milwaukie’s goal and its even in our climate action plan, is that we be an example that we can show to other small and medium sized cities to say, look, you can do this, and it’s not going to break the budget. As a matter of fact, it’s going to start saving you money.

A very small example of that is part of what we’re doing is, is a divestment process. We just changed banks from Wells Fargo to Umpqua bank, which is a local bank. Umpqua was chosen, won that bid, because part of the questions were, do you, does your bank invest in policy in the fossil fuel industry? And they were able to answer no. Whereas Wells Fargo absolutely invests in the fossil fuel industry. Changing from that big wall street bank to that local bank is actually saving the city money. So we killed two birds with one stone. We’ve, you know, improved our budget and we’re reducing investment in fossil fuels. And the next thing we’re going after is, is the state funds or the funds that the state controls are our partners liability, uh, all the different funds that sit in that are managed by the treasurer when we’re looking to get those divested from fossil fuels. And I think, you know, if you do a little research, you learn pretty quickly that the various funds that are divested from fossil fuels are actually doing better, generally speaking than funds that have fossil fuels in the mix. I think the largest investment firm in the world, maybe, certainly in America, which is BlackRock, is recommending that people began to move their investments away from fossil fuels, purely for investment purposes. Not for any environmental reasons.

Natalie Rogers: To add to that, you know, there’s so much low hanging fruit for us cities to really achieve climate action goals, energy efficiency, improvements, and buildings. I mean, switching to led light bulbs, improving our HVAC systems, those save you money. They saved us tens of thousands of dollars. You know, planting trees has storm water, utility benefits, right? So there’s so many other cost-effective ways to do it and big climate actions don’t to big costs most of the time because of those co-benefits. So, and we’re happy to talk to others about how we’ve done it so they can do it too.
John Farrell: Well, thank you, both of you, Mayor Gamba and Natalie for taking the time to speak with me about the work that you’re doing in Milwaukie.
Mark Gamba: Thank you for having me. It’s been fun.
Natalie Rogers: Thank you.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this Voices of 100% episode of Local Energy Rules with Milwaukie, Oregon Climate Action and Sustainability Coordinator Natalie Rogers and Mayor Mark Gamba, where we discussed the city’s ambitious clean energy goals and its strategies to meet them. On the show page, look for links to the city’s community climate action plan and other articles about the city’s goals, including an interview with Mayor Gamba. On our website, you can also find ILSR’s community power map of 100% cities, our interactive community power toolkit for examples of how cities have accelerated climate action, as well as over 100 episodes of Local Energy Rules. Local  Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy. Editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear more powerful stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.

Finding Hope in a City of 20,000

Before he served on the Milwaukie City Council and was subsequently elected Mayor, Mark Gamba was a professional photojournalist who experienced climate change firsthand. While taking photos for National Geographic, he witnessed receding glaciers and bleached coral reefs.

Gamba was discouraged by federal inaction, so he got involved in local politics.

It really kind of put me in a tailspin for several years until I decided to get involved locally and just try and start doing that work at that level.

– Mark Gamba

The first step in Milwaukie’s path to climate action was to develop a new vision with community buy-in. The city spent 14 months gathering community input for what would ultimately become Milwaukie’s Community Vision Statement: “In 2040, Milwaukie is a flourishing city that is entirely equitable, delightfully livable, and completely sustainable…” This statement then informed the development of a Climate Action Plan.

Goal Adoption and Adaptation

In 2018, the city of Milwaukie released its initial Climate Action Plan. However, after reading a new and more dire report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the Milwaukie City Council declared a climate emergency and accelerated each of the climate action goals by five years. The city is now aiming for net zero electricity emissions by 2030, net zero building emissions by 2035, and to be carbon neutral by 2045. The last goal will be the hardest to reach, says Gamba, but he hopes that they will get state and federal support as others catch on.

I think when cities put out that goal and talk about it, it starts to help create that message.

– Mark Gamba

Has Milwaukie Made Progress?

Natalie Rogers, Milwaukie’s Climate Action and Sustainability Coordinator, says that the city hit its goal of 2.2 megawatts of residential solar — all part of a Solarize campaign — in January 2021. Milwaukie also sources 100% of its municipal electricity load from utility Portland General Electric’s ‘Green Future Impact’ solar. As more customers subscribe and the solar array grows, the price premium diminishes. Rogers says that it is now just a fraction of a cent.

Several Milwaukie initiatives have stalled because of state policy. Oregon’s community solar bill is “fine,” says Gamba, but there has been little follow through. The state also preempts Milwaukie from setting its own building energy code. With the help of other cities, Milwaukie is lobbying the state to establish a reach code that would allow more stringent local building energy codes.

A lot of these challenges for climate and for carbon-free electricity and energy really hit hard for small communities that don’t have the resources or the staff expertise to make change and be able to engage in some of these really technical conversations.

– Natalie Rogers

Finally, Milwaukie’s leaders want to negotiate for clean energy on the behalf of residents. They are working with utility Portland General Electric to create an opt-out bargaining unit of electricity customers within the city’s jurisdiction. Since all residents would be automatically enrolled, Milwaukie could use numbers to drive down the price of the clean power.

This deal is different from community choice aggregation because the community would not shop around for a provider; it would buy all its power from Portland General Electric. The utility is afraid of aggregation, says Gamba, so it is willing to work with Milwaukie on this compromise.

The difference is just that instead of an opt-in voluntary product, it’s an opt-out voluntary product that can be designed with the community’s values in mind.

– Natalie Rogers

A Small Price to Pay

Some people connect with the need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, says Rogers, but some do not. For this reason, she raises a few co-benefits of climate action: better air quality, more affordable housing, and increased equity. Gamba mentions the city’s Safe Access for Everyone program to build out bike infrastructure and improve walkability.

Talking about co-benefits is a really great way for people to realize that oftentimes, sustainability and climate action has a wealth of other contributions to the community beyond just emissions reductions.

– Natalie Rogers

When Farrell asks for his advice to other city leaders, Gamba says that “it’s not that hard” and “it’s not that expensive.” Even for cities on a tight budget, “low-hanging fruit” initiatives such as switching to LED light bulbs, planting trees, and improving HVAC systems pay for themselves in savings.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how cities can take action toward gaining more control over their clean energy future, explore ILSR’s Community Power Toolkit.

Explore local and state policies and programs that help advance clean energy goals across the country, using ILSR’s interactive Community Power Map.

This is the 29th episode of our special  Voices of 100% series, and episode 131 of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares powerful stories of successful local renewable energy and exposes the policy and practical barriers to its expansion.

Local Energy Rules is Produced by ILSR’s John Farrell and Maria McCoy. Audio engineering by Drew Birschbach.

This article originally posted at ilsr.org. For timely updates, follow John Farrell on Twitter, our energy work on Facebook, or sign up to get the Energy Democracy weekly update

Featured photo credit: Maria Sipin via Flickr (CC BY-NC 2.0)


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Maria McCoy is a Researcher with the Energy Democracy Initiative. In this role, she contributes to blog posts, podcasts, video content, and interactive features.