A Portland Fund, Collected from Corporations, Finances Community Benefits — Episode 120 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 30 Dec 2020 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

In 2018, Portland voters showed their support for a climate action fund. Now, the city works to maintain that community support and involvement as the money is given out.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules podcast, host John Farrell speaks with Jaimes Valdez, a member of the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund startup team. They discuss steps Portland has taken to implement the 2018 ballot initiative and how a climate action fund can serve the community.

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

Jaimes Valdez: We are in very different times now than when the ballot initiative that created the Portland Clean Energy Fund was passed in 2018, but we’re really addressing some of the same systemic problems.
John Farrell: Two years ago, residents of Portland, Oregon voted to raise tens of millions of dollars each year to fund equitable climate work from a surcharge on licensing fees for big businesses. The Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund recently launched with a request for community proposals for expanding renewable energy, supporting green infrastructure, and connecting vulnerable people to new job opportunities in clean energy. Jaimes Valdez, member of the fund startup team, joined me in October, 2020 to discuss how the fund’s implementation aims to hold true to its intent of resolving disparities while fighting climate change. 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.

Well, let’s just go ahead and jump in with this first question then. So, Jaimes, I guess to start, I just want to ask this general question. As someone from Minneapolis, I can say that 2020 has been kind of a turbulent year. I was just kind of curious how the protests over racial injustice have impacted or changed your work.

Jaimes Valdez: Yeah. Uh, thanks John. And it has been quite a summer, quite a 2020, and Portland has been no exception to that. From the outside, you’d probably say that Portland has been in the news for maybe a lot of the wrong reasons. And I guess most recently the wildfires that we had in, in the Northwest produced the worst air quality of any major, major city in the world for a few days. Um, so definitely climate issues are still very real in front of mind. And then also, you know, what really is an ongoing and multi-generational push for racial justice is something that really aligns well with what our program is intended to do and really how the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund started. And so we are in very different times now than when the ballot initiative that created the Portland Clean Energy Fund was passed in 2018, but we’re really addressing some of the same systemic problems. And so I’d say that, you know, what has happened with the COVID health and economic crisis and the disparities that are wrapped up in that, that we’re seeing along racial and social lines, the push for police accountability and greater focus on racial justice and also the climate emergency that we’re in, all has really reinforced the need for our program and the Portland Clean Energy Fund, but it isn’t new or kind of realigning the goals because they were already well aligned with that vision to begin with. So it’s helping really, you know, support and elevate the work we’re doing here in Portland.
John Farrell: Yeah. You know, you’re working on sort of the startup team for how these funds will be deployed from this 2018 initiative, which, you know, if I trust my Twitter feed was about 50 years ago, uh, in terms of how we feel about it. Can you talk a little bit about what you’ve been doing in terms of preparing for the launch of this new source of funding? You’ve already kind of alluded to the fact that it’s going to address a lot of these sort of simmering issues. And how have you been engaging the community as part of that process?
Jaimes Valdez: Well, at first I’d say that really the whole initiative for the Portland Clean Energy Fund came from the community to begin with. And so it was really a coalition of nonprofit organizations led by communities of color who recognized that the tools that we had in Portland and in Oregon more broadly to address climate change and to really change the narrative around who benefits from climate investment, that, that had previously left out a lot of people, including low-income people and communities of color. And so groups that really help serve our low income communities and communities of color came together with the vision of the Portland Clean Energy Fund, and then rallied together, hundreds of other organizations to support the ballot initiative, did a huge outreach and canvas and campaign that involves thousands of volunteers and then successfully in November, 2018, which you’re right, does seem like many, many decades ago. Now that passed overwhelmingly the voters of Portland supported on almost a two to one margin. It was over 65% of the vote.

And so it’s been a couple of years since that November, and we’ve been really busy in the last couple of years getting the program launched. And so I was brought on and kind of the first staff was, was hired about a year and a half ago. And I guess it was June of 2019. And then really we, we led with a lot of community engagement. We had an event in September, 2019 to really pull people together that were both the organizations and people that were involved in the ballot initiative, but also other organizations that were interested and who saw the opportunity to create new pathways for green jobs, for energy efficiency and renewable energy investments for green infrastructure investments in our city. And so really kind of brainstorm and identify where there was a need to address barriers, where there was interest and excitement and different types of projects also where, or there was a need for capacity building and additional resources. And so, um, over the past year, year and a half, we’ve done a lot of community outreach and listening. And then also the kind of key decision-making body for the Portland Clean Energy Fund is a nine person volunteer committee that really helped establish the structure of the fund and has been dedicating an enormous amount of time in the program launch. And so this is, uh, nine people from the Portland community that represent a variety of different backgrounds and expertise. Um, we have a racially and ethnically diverse group, really good gender balance as well. And, you know, I I’d say that a lot of the work has been iterative. We’ve been coming up with ideas and then providing opportunity for input and reflection and public comment. The program lives within the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. So we, as we also have a lot of the infrastructure of the city and the public outreach elements that the city would would do, but we’ve also had to create new pathways. And so part of that has been through different types of events and community building and direct presentations to nonprofit organizations and coalitions within the city, and really prioritizing those that serve black indigenous and people of color.

John Farrell: I just wanted to mention with regards to the ballot initiative that I did do an interview a couple of years ago with Alan Hipolito from Verde about the ballot initiative. I think it dropped about a month before the election. And it was great to kind of hear about, as you said, that wide variety of community organizations really driven by folks from vulnerable communities, low income communities who were looking to change the way that the city approached climate and really to bring forth that equity perspective. So just wanted to put in a plug for that if folks want to hear more of the backstory, but yeah, it’d be really great to hear about some of the milestones with this, and then we can move on and talk a little bit more about this first round of proposals that’s coming up.
Jaimes Valdez: Well, I’d say one of the milestones was the formation of the committee itself and having a decision-making body of these volunteers that can help guide the program. And then they really worked along with community input and that was in November of 2019. So just about a year ago that we had a fully seated decision-making body. And then we identified the need really for guiding principles for the program and to have values that then were leading the other decision-making for the launch. And so there was a public input process for that and community engagement to develop a set of guiding principles. And we have those posted on our website, but I’ll just, I guess, summarize them here. The first guiding principles of the program, be justice driven, advanced system change to address the stark and current discrimination that it’d be community powered. That there’d be a real trust in the community knowledge, experience, innovation and leadership that the program be accountable, that it’s implementing our funding in a transparent way with oversight and engagement processes that promote continuous learning. Um, and that really all of the, the kind of vessel for that or the umbrella for that is that we’re focused on climate action with multiple benefits that we’re not just seeking the lowest kind of market-based carbon emissions per dollar, but we’re really embedding social values. And looking at who benefits from the different deployments of funds or different projects that arise from Portland Clean Energy Fund. So that’s kind of the overall umbrella is that dual climate action with social benefit. And so we then adopted those guiding principles and that was in April of 2020. And then we in, during that process, we’re also putting together the infrastructure and programmatic pieces for the first grant RFP or request for proposal. And so that is really kind of opening the door to community ideas to apply for grant funding. And that also went through public comment process and period where we’re making all the scoring of how grants will be evaluated transparent, and people, people who are applying or nonprofit organizations that apply, can see those criteria ahead of time. And so that was really finalized throughout the summer in June was kind of the opening of the public comment period.

And then just a few weeks ago, we were able to release kind of the first RFP $8.6 million worth of funding. However, there was one other milestone that we thought was necessary and important, and the grant committee helped provide vision for which was a recognition that a lot of smaller nonprofit organizations, especially those serving marginalized populations or black indigenous and people of color didn’t have the capacity and resources to apply for grant funds. They may not be familiar with some of those processes or how to have the grant writing training, or have the kind of organizational technology that they need, especially in our current time of COVID and not being able to engage with the communities they serve in a normal way kind of in person. So we created something that we call application support grant funds, which was an opportunity for nonprofit organizations to receive a small amount of funding, about $5,000 per organization to get ready to apply for either Portland Clean Energy Fund grants or other grants related to climate and social equity. And so we put those out about two months ago or so, and we had overwhelming interest in those resources. We had over 130 applicants to that process and were able to fund 42 organizations to prepare themselves to get ready. And so that application was very short. It was a one page survey monkey form where we really were finding a kind of balance between ensuring that there were in the nonprofit organizations that kind of were meeting the basic criteria of eligibility, but that really we’re focusing on those that are small organizations and those that serve black and indigenous people within Portland. And so we had a prioritization to reach organizations that perhaps hadn’t previously seen themselves as being involved in climate change work or weren’t as aware of the grant opportunities and processes.

And so, uh, yeah, we’re now in the process of distributing those funds and getting organizations ready to apply for this round of funding that is open right now, again, that $8.6 million and in future rounds we’ll have significantly more resources. The kind of annual budget for the Portland Clean Energy Fund is more on the order of 40 to $60 million per year. But this introductory round is kind of a ramp up to that full funding amount.

John Farrell: So, you know, this first request for proposals offers, you know, like you said, eight point something million around 9 million for projects that can include clean energy, green infrastructure and workforce development. And I saw that there’s a really nice graphic on the city website that kind of lays out the different portions and kind of what might be included in that. How does that reflect the ballot language’s focus on low income and minority communities?
Jaimes Valdez: Well, a lot of that graphic that you see on the website, and we encourage you to go on our website, those funding categories really come straight from the ballot language, the ballot language defined general buckets of eligible activities and categories. But there’s a lot of flexibility within that in both how that is allocated in a funding cycle, but then also what fits within that. And so I can get into maybe some examples or what that might look like in a little bit, but to answer your, your question, really, there are some targets and goals within the ballot initiative that have fully and strongly made their way into the grant RFP and the criteria. And so part of that is about ensuring that the beneficiaries of projects are focusing the benefits on low-income communities and communities of color within Portland. There’s also criteria within the workforce development and contractor training to really address barriers historically to employment, and also looking at opportunities for creating work in the clean energy sector for again, low-income people, communities of color, women, people with disabilities and people who’ve had historic barriers to employment.

And so, yeah, all of that is very much within kind of the RFP. And one of the ways that we’re, I guess, tangibly addressing that is really looking for a matchup between the organization goal and mission. Who’s served by a nonprofit organization applying for Portland clean energy fund, but also looking to ensure that the board and the staff reflect the population that is served. So that there’s an alignment between the mission and who does the work. So those are some of the ways that, you know, if you dig into the details of the, of the RFP, that ballot initiative language really manifests itself.

John Farrell: What do you hope to see in terms of the first round of proposals? And what do you think success would look like in terms of the kinds of projects that are funded as part of the first round?
Jaimes Valdez: Yeah. Um, well, I think success will take many different forms. You know, we, I think broadly want to see a lot of different ideas and good ideas and creativity come through the Portland Clean Energy Fund, recognizing that the role of Portland Clean Energy Fund is to do things that haven’t been done before or to address gaps that previous programs that we’ve had in the city of Portland or Oregon, weren’t able to fill. Because we have had a lot of other renewable energy and energy policy and investment and incentive opportunities within the state, but those have not been equitably available or distributed. But I think one of the key pieces of success is really seeing new groups come into the work to have organizations that are serving vulnerable populations in Portland, or have a mission that can align with climate action, but maybe that they hadn’t seen themselves as previously working on that and really kind of embedding that into the work of organizations throughout the city and helping them to create their own platform for change and addressing, addressing climate and also addressing social and racial equity. And so I’d say that a piece of that is really seeing new groups and new entities come into the space of climate action in terms of what those projects might look like.

As you mentioned, there’s sort of some defined program areas, including funding allocations, about 50% of the fund for clean energy programs. And so this is really looking at improving the places where people live, work, worship and learn, you know, it can be working on residential homes and making those more energy efficient and healthier, addressing both necessary health and safety improvements, as well as energy efficiency or renewable opportunities. It could be doing large retrofits on even some multi-family or for commercial properties as well, or working with schools and churches to improve the energy efficiency of those buildings and help ensure local generation from solar or, or other innovative technologies is, is coming on the grid as, as part of those investments. Then there’s a 15% allocation for green infrastructure, regenerative agriculture. And so that that’s really about the ways that the living systems around the city help sequester carbon. So this is things like street trees, bike lanes, or street side planters, and also urban agriculture and kind of regenerative practices to help sequester more carbon in soil as part of the food system. And localizing elements of that food system. And then there’s a workforce and contractor development allocation of funding. This is really ensuring that we have new pathways to get people who have historically been excluded or left out of clean energy jobs into that workplace. And so this could be apprenticeship training programs. It could be partnerships with getting more contractors of color into the business community to do the work. Um, it could take a variety of different different ways. And then there’s, uh, about a 5% allocation for innovation, just recognizing broadly that there’s a lot of creativity out there in the community, a lot of ideas that have both carbon reduction benefit and also social equity benefit, but, you know, don’t fit into those preexisting buckets. So I’d say we want creativity. It definitely is part of what we see, but we also, you know, I think we do want projects that can be implemented in the near term. And especially as we, as we see the economic impacts of COVID and really significant job losses, some of which are structural in nature, we need to really be thinking about what the new energy economy and what a just green recovery looks like from COVID economically, not just going back to some preexisting normal, which was really injust to begin with.

John Farrell: Right. It’s exciting to hear about some of the green infrastructure. I was on a tour in Milwaukee, I think it might’ve just been last summer, again, it feels like 50 years ago, where they were talking about Milwaukee has had some of the biggest flooding problems of any urban system and how they were prioritizing communities of color to go in and do like park development, where they included green infrastructure that could absorb a lot more stormwater and to help with drainage because they were having these persistent flooding problems. So it was, it’s a way that like helps address and mitigate challenges of climate change. But then of course, you know, planting trees is simple. As that seems also helps mitigate some of the direct impacts of neighborhood heat islands. For example, really struck by seeing some maps from some communities that we’ve talked to doing this work, where you look at the traditional red lining map, and then you look at like an urban tree cover map, and it’s like the same map and it’s, you know, 10 to 15 degrees hotter. And some of these communities that don’t have that tree cover,

We’re going to take a short break. When we come back, I ask if this new fund is sufficient to get the city to its ambitious 100% renewable electricity and 10% local energy goals by 2035, why there’s a growing movement of cities taxing big companies to fund local equity measures, and what advice Jaimes has for other cities considering similar climate and equity funds. You’re listening to a Local Energy Rules interview with Jaimes Valdez, member of the startup team for the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund.

John Farrell: Hey, thanks for listening to Local Energy Rules. If you’ve made it this far, you’re obviously a fan and we could use your help for just two minutes. As you’ve probably noticed, we don’t have any corporate sponsors or ads for any of our podcasts. The reason is that our mission at ILSR is to reinvigorate democracy by decentralizing economic power. Instead, we rely on you, our listeners. Your donations not only underwrite this podcast, but also help us produce all of the research and resources that we make available on our website and all of the technical assistance we provide to grassroots organizations every year. Each year, our small staff helps hundreds of communities challenge monopoly power directly and rebuild their local economies. So please take a minute and go to Ilsr.org and click on the donate button. And if making a donation isn’t something you can do, please consider helping us in other ways. You can help other folks find this podcast by telling them about it or by giving it a review on iTunes, Stitcher, or wherever you get your podcasts. The more ratings from listeners like you, the more folks can find this podcast and ILSR’s other podcasts: Community Broadband Bits and Building Local Power. Thanks again for listening. Now, back to the program.
John Farrell: You know I wanted to ask kind of a big picture question, Portland like many other cities has some pretty broad goals around 100% renewable electricity and 10% local energy by 2035, do you feel like this funding source is enough for the city to reach those ambitious goals?
Jaimes Valdez: Maybe I’ll briefly answer the question, as in, no. This funding alone will not get the city to our 100% renewable goals. But I do want to go back to the comment that you just made quickly, about kind of the urban heat island and the role of trees, and just note that also some of those same patterns and disparities and access to tree cover, or the way that our, the city of Portland was built and developed, also parallels parts of what, what you were talking about in, in Milwaukee where parts of Eastern Portland, which is increasingly where a lot of our communities of color are living or being gentrified out of closer in neighborhoods and having to move to, there’s no tree canopy or really street amenities either. And so there are disparities and kind of access to nature as well as tree canopy and Portland like many cities. But in many ways, you know, Oregon has its own history of exclusionary, zoning and racist policies that we’re also meeting to address with both development goals. And also, you know, Portland Clean Energy Fund can be a piece of that, but isn’t enough to address those large systemic disparities either. So like Portland Clean Energy Fund on its own is not enough to address these larger systemic disparities in terms of access to housing and the pressures of gentrification. But it also isn’t enough on its own to address the goals of the city has for getting to a hundred percent renewable energy, or, you know, frankly I’d say even the goal within our a hundred percent renewable target, which is a 10% of the energy consumed within Portland be generated within the city. So it’s going to take a lot of other policy changes at the state and regulatory level to help enable that, you know, things like community solar, renewable energy co-ops, really a ramp up of that vision to be shared broadly by other sectors as well, not just the sort of grantmaking world of PCEF.
John Farrell: Right. You know, I should mention, we did an interview, uh, just at the beginning of this year with Dan Orzeck, who’s the general manager of the Oregon Clean Power Cooperative, which was fascinating. I’d never heard of it before he ended up just emailing me out of the blue, but it’s a cooperative structure for clean energy investments where folks can either participate in projects in the way that community solar is involved, but largely folks were just earning a return by investing in local, renewable energy projects. That’s such a cool model. And I think pretty unique that you’ve got a state law and Oregon that supported that structure, even if it’s not maybe as widespread as it could be. So we’ll link to that podcast interview as well for folks who are curious.
Jaimes Valdez: And maybe just a brief editorial note, um, because if you go to that website, you’ll see that I am, I’m involved with the Oregon Clean Power Co-op as well. Though this wasn’t intended to be an endorsement for it, but I many years ago in a previous role also did, did help to get that law that allowed renewable energy cooperatives in Oregon established partially based on some inspiration that I got from a fellowship that I did in Germany, some of us got together and had already been elevating that concept because there are cooperative business structures that really can help to address equity in new ways. And so maybe we’ll leave that for a different discussion, but yeah, just want to note that.
John Farrell: An entire podcast on renewable energy cooperatives I think would be worthwhile. You know, it’s really interesting though, in terms of, we won’t go there, but just in terms of the way that a co-op as a democratic economic institution can allow you to center some of the same values that you have in some of these political or tax structures and making sure that it’s inclusionary. So yeah, too much down that road to go there, but I’m delighted to hear that you were involved with the creation of that co-op law and encourage people to listen to that podcast for some more on that particular entity. One of the things I wanted to ask you about Jaimes was about the way that Portland’s Clean Energy Fund and the clean energy initiative to create the fund fits into kind of this constellation of other cities that are taking action to raise funds, to do climate work. Some like Minneapolis, which has already adopted a sort of a tax on utility bills. Looks like Berkeley, California is headed in the same direction or going from that standpoint kind of, of, you know, energy is where we create a lot of the pollution for climate. So we’ll get the funds from there, but then other cities, you know, Seattle’s Jumpstart tax, which was passed just earlier this year, Portland’s clean energy initiative are targeting big corporations. Why do you think important or why do you think that it’s noteworthy that cities like Portland and Seattle are focused on big companies to fund these measures that are really focused on equitable outcomes?
Jaimes Valdez: Maybe first of all, I’ll just describe for the listeners kind of the revenue mechanism if they’re not familiar. As I mentioned before, kind of the anticipation is that the fund will generate between 40 to $60 million annually. And that comes from a 1% business license surcharge on the activities of large corporations that do business within the city. And so that’s defined as corporations that have over $1 billion with a B of revenue nationally and over $500,000 within the city of Portland. And so you can kind of imagine the most big box stores would probably fit into that. And there are critically some exemptions for different types of business activity that are not subject to that. So that includes all food items that are snap eligible. It includes utilities. So there is not actually a direct link between energy usage and revenue generation for Portland Clean Energy Fund. It also doesn’t include medicine or medical devices or the provision of healthcare services. So we have the necessary things that we need as people to, to live in this world, aren’t subject to that. So there was an intentionality to make the revenue generation not, not regressive. And so that’s, I think one key piece, and one thing that resonated with the voters who saw the mechanism and realize that these are very successful companies doing business within our city and that they, you know, I think voters decided that there was an obligation and a benefit to them giving back to the community in a way that the community got to self-determine to some degree. But I’d say you do have to see where the resources are and where there has been an increasing concentration of wealth through corporate entities upward. And so, you know, the reinvestment in community that that type of revenue mechanism allows, I think it’s appealing to local city government and recognizing that Oregon is a state that does not have a sales tax. And so there’s other revenue mechanisms that are used at the state level, but this was a mechanism that was able to be used through business license fee to, to generate revenue locally.
John Farrell: Jaimes, what advice would you give to Seattle or other cities as they’re looking to implement these new funding programs? What do you think is kind of the most important of considerations that folks have as they go through this process of deciding how to spend those funds?
Jaimes Valdez: Yeah, I’d say that really the key is community engagement input early on, and really a co-creative model for designing the program and not one that just relies on experts, but really one that is elevated with the voices of the communities that are intended to benefit and who historically been left out because otherwise there’ll be potential for the same alienation marginalization that has happened in a lot of programs in the past. And honestly, I just want to, as a cautionary piece it’s, if the voters are being promised equity and really being told that this is an opportunity to create change, that program also needs to be very transparent and accountable to how it does that and have metrics that help reflect what that progress looks like. And so, you know, programmatically, that’s something that we’re still developing and that we will be held accountable to is what does the makeup of the beneficiaries look like in our projects moving forward? What have we created in terms of the job opportunities and career pathways as part of the program?
John Farrell: You know, you referenced this idea of metrics there in, in this notion of accountability. And I’m curious, you know, I’m thinking about I’m in from Minneapolis, as I said before. And, and one of the things that the city has done here is designate two so-called green zones. So it’s areas where they geographically want to target investment based on historical disadvantage, pollution burdens, energy burdens in terms of high energy bills, et cetera. But there’s not necessarily a tracking of the individual recipients of funds. It sounds like you’re still trying to develop how you’re going to track this effectively, but I’m kind of curious like what you have in mind, what it is that we should be tracking, or maybe even more importantly, how we would track that, like what’s the information we need to collect or what data sources do we already have that kind of thing.
Jaimes Valdez: Yeah, that’s a really good question. Um, I definitely want to, we’re still kind of evolving, but maybe high level, I’d say that by data and metrics, we don’t just mean numbers. I think also stories matter and understanding how the program is impacting people’s lives directly is a piece of data. And so, you know, I think the other piece that we, we want to be looking at is the indicators of displacement, or if there’s investment happening, we want to ensure that people and especially people of color aren’t being pushed out by the improvements that are being made in priority neighborhoods, or if there’s a geographic approach. And so the ballot initiative does have some language that really restricts landowners, property owners from increasing rents based on the improvements made if they were to receive funding from Portland Clean Energy Fund, but we still are very much developing kind of the tools to measure that kind of community stability, to maybe phrase it in a positive.

We often talk about displacement, but what we want is community stability as a result of these funds being deployed and for people to have healthier homes that are cheaper to operate that help provide new wealth building opportunities and, you know, a cleaner environment for both, you know, the broader climate lens, but also within their neighborhood. And so, yeah, in terms of measuring that, I mean, we, frankly just within the Bureau often look at tools like the American Community Survey and broader demographic tools, but part of what we’re doing as a program is going to be tracking the engagement with the grant recipients and having them report back on who benefited from the project, what were the demographics and income levels of the people whose houses were weatherized or who participated in the renewable energy program or who was involved in the workforce development on their street tree planting program, let’s say, if one gets funded. So there’s a, maybe a non-answer because it’s so complicated.

John Farrell: No, I think that’s great. I, I mean, I think it’s good to acknowledge in these programs that there is a lot of complexity and in how we design them and how we implement and to let people know the fact that it is complex, but you’re trying to wrestle with complex things. And so it’s understandable that it will be, but that there are ways to do that. I think that’s, it’s as good an answer as we can expect, frankly, in terms of how we get there.
Jaimes Valdez: And yeah, I’d love to follow up because I guess the other thing that I would mention is that, you know, our grant program is open right now and closes middle of November, but then it won’t be till the beginning of next year that funds are actually going out to the community and we’re starting to see projects get implemented. So, you know, I’d be happy to do a follow-up conversation once we have more successes where I can help tell those stories and really talk more about what we’ve done rather than what we’re planning to do.
John Farrell: You bet. Well, thank you for joining us now to talk about this uncomfortable middle space between, you’ve passed the ballot initiative, you have some funds, and how you get them out the door. Cause I think that’s also important for folks around the country to understand as they look to do similar things in their communities. So thank you very much, Jaimes.
Jaimes Valdez: Yeah. Thank you, John. And I’m super grateful to be, be in this role and helping launch this opportunity and also to get to talk to you and share our experiences here in Portland.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Jaimes Valdez of the startup team for the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund recorded in October, 2020. On the show page, look for links to the clean energy fund website with a deeper description of the available funds and eligible projects, as well as our 2018 interview with Alan Hipolito about the ballot measure campaign. You can also find links to other interviews and stories about cities using their local authority to generate more funding for equitable clean energy work, such as Minneapolis, Minnesota, and Berkeley, California. On our website, you can also find our community power map of all cities with 100% renewable energy goals like Portland and an interactive community power toolkit for stories on how cities have advanced toward their goal with new funding and new strategies. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy. Editing provided by Maria McCoy. 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.

A Climate Action Fund with Community Benefits

The Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund is the product of a 2018 ballot initiative. Through a one percent surcharge on big businesses, the fund raises 40-60 million dollars per year for “climate action that advances racial and social justice.” Jaimes Valdez serves on the Fund’s startup team.

The surcharge only applies to businesses collecting one billion dollars of revenue nationally, with $500,000 of revenue collected in Portland. Utilities, medical suppliers, and certain food items are exempt from the charge. This way, says Valdez, the fund’s burden will not fall on the consumers of these essential goods.

The role of Portland Clean Energy Fund is to do things that haven’t been done before or to address gaps that previous programs that we’ve had in the city of Portland weren’t able to fill.

The idea for a climate action fund came from the public, says Valdez. Nonprofit organizations representing various communities in Portland joined forces to put the Portland Clean Energy Fund on the ballot.

Hear Alan Hipólito, director of Verde, explain how the Portland Clean Energy Fund got on the ballot in episode 63 of Local Energy Rules.

Valdez says that the vision of Portland’s Clean Energy Fund has not changed in the last two years, despite the difficulties of 2020. Rather, he believes that this year has “reinforced” the need for a justice driven climate action fund:

We are in very different times now than when the ballot initiative that created the Portland Clean Energy Fund was passed in 2018, but we’re really addressing some of the same systemic problems.

Getting to Work after a Ballot Initiative Win

Valdez describes steps the city has taken since the Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund passed in 2018. First, he and other staff were hired. The city then, with input from the community, established a grant committee in November 2019. Nine individuals are on the volunteer committee, each representing a different area of Portland. This committee developed a set of four guiding principles in April 2020:

  •  Justice driven
  • Accountable
  • Community powered
  • Focused on climate action with multiple benefits

For each decision made, the community is invited to engage and provide input. To earn public trust, says Valdez, each step must be as transparent as possible.

If the voters are being promised equity and really being told that this is an opportunity to create change, that program also needs to be very transparent and accountable to how it does that

Request for Proposals

Organizations submitted their grant proposals by mid November — the first 8.6 million dollars of the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be allocated in early 2021. Future rounds of funding will be closer to the fund’s 40 to 60 million dollar annual budget.

Earlier in the year, the committee provided 42 “application support grant funds;” $5,000 for organizations that needed help putting together a grant proposal. Valdez says that the priority for this funding was small organizations serving Black and Indigenous communities.

A piece of that is really seeing new groups and new entities come into the space of climate action

The Portland Clean Energy Fund has four funding categories: clean energy programs, green infrastructure/regenerative agriculture, workforce development/contractor support, and innovation. There is some flexibility in the portion of funds designated for each category.

Photo from the City of Portland

One Piece of the Puzzle

Portland has a goal to reach 10 percent local energy and 100 percent renewable electricity by 2035. When Farrell asks if the Portland Clean Energy Fund will be enough to reach that ambitious goal, Valdez’s answer is simple: no. He does believe, however, that the fund will contribute to that goal and help ensure that the transition is just along the way.

We’re not just seeking the lowest market-based carbon emissions per dollar, but we’re really embedding social values and looking at who benefits from the different deployments of funds or different projects that arise from Portland Clean Energy Fund.

The fund’s success rate, says Valdez, will be measured by data, stories of impact, and feedback from grantees. Another measure of success is “community stability” and the city has put measures in place to discourage displacement.

Could Taxing Corporations be Contagious?

The Portland Clean Energy Fund is not a totally unique idea. In Seattle, council members passed Jumpstart Seattle: a tax on corporate payroll that funds affordable housing and Green New Deal initiatives. Valdez’s advice for cities inspired by Portland or Seattle? Let the community lead the way.

Voters… realize that these are very successful companies doing business within our city and they decided that there was an obligation and a benefit to them giving back to the community in a way that the community got to self-determine

Episode Notes

Check out the Local Energy Rules episodes mentioned in the interview:

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 episode 120 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 for this episode by Maria McCoy.

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: Kritchanut via iStock

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Maria McCoy

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