Portland Funds Community-Led Clean Energy Projects — Episode 190 of Local Energy Rules

Date: 16 Aug 2023 | posted in: Energy, Energy Self Reliant States | 0 Facebooktwitterredditmail

Creating a program that is justice driven, accountable, community powered, and has multiple benefits is a tall order.

For this episode of the Local Energy Rules Podcast, host John Farrell is joined by Maria Sipin, volunteer committee member for the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund. They discuss what the fund has accomplished, how volunteers from the community have shaped the fund’s priorities, and how to evaluate project success.

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

Maria Sipin: You’ve heard the saying we’re building the plane as we fly it. That couldn’t be more true for PCEF. Many of the staff members were already established climate leaders in their own right working for other agencies throughout the state. They were recruited to start up PCEF and to make sure it had a strong foundation. Many of those staff members who were part of the original hiring for the Portland Clean Energy Fund are still with the team today and it is really nice to grow with them.
John Farrell: In 2018, residents of Portland, Oregon voted to approve a ballot measure, establishing a clean energy fund financed by a tax on large corporations and dedicating funding to projects that would increase local clean energy and address environmental injustice. Launching an ambitious local climate funding project would’ve been daunting in any event, but it coincided with a global pandemic, unrest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s killing, and a historic heat wave in 2021 that caused numerous deaths. Despite the challenges, Maria Sipin, a volunteer member of the Portland Clean Energy Fund steering committee, joined me in June, 2023 to discuss the progress of the fund and its future. I’m John Farrell, director of the Energy Democracy Initiative at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance. And this is Local Energy Rules, a podcast about monopoly power, energy democracy, and how communities can take charge to transform the energy system. Maria, welcome to Local Energy Rules.
Maria Sipin: Thank you so much. I’m happy to be here to talk to you about PCEF or the Portland Clean Energy Fund.
John Farrell: Maria, I just love to start by asking you how you got involved with the Portland Clean Energy Fund. Have you had clean energy or climate work be part of your personal or professional life for a while, or is this sort of a divergence from that? How did you end up landing as a committee member?
Maria Sipin: There’s all kinds of ways my life intersected with PCEF and I think it was all meant to be. I’ve been living in Portland for several years already, going to school to earn my master’s in urban and regional planning with an emphasis in transportation and I was also completing my master’s in public health. So I got the benefits of the dual degree program here at the OHSU-PSU School of Public Health and I felt like serving on the committee would be a good way for me to apply my lived experiences as well as my academic experiences and my professional experiences. At that time I was going to school, as I had described, I was also working at the State Department of Transportation in the active transportation department. So within this massive highways agency, I was charged with elevating and expanding our bicycle and pedestrian network addressing ADA and everything related to expanding curb and ramp projects, assigning sidewalk funds to whichever construction was happening, and making sure we maximize our network for those who walk, bike, take transit and get around by wheelchair and other mobility devices.

So I had always been really passionate about making sure we emphasize sustainability in our travel policies and our travel investments, but also expand on the parts of our climate experience that is often overlooked. And I’m really here to represent many priority communities, the Black, indigenous and people of color communities, mostly immigrant and brown communities where I come from, as well as people with disabilities as a disabled person. So all kinds of different intersections I’ve mentioned there really brought me to become a champion for PCEF and first and foremost from my communities and the communities that I’m part of.

John Farrell: So Portland is one of just a handful of cities that have created a like serious and significant fund for community clean energy investment. Could you talk about what you think motivated residents in Portland to take this action and maybe how you would describe the purpose of the Portland Clean Energy Fund?
Maria Sipin: I’ve really admired the people power behind the Portland Clean Energy Fund and the community organizations, residents and neighbors and coalitions that formed to champion this on the local ballot. One of the things that I appreciated the most about their drive was the way that they wanted to elevate frontline communities and highlighted especially the ways that black indigenous and people of color, low-income people, houseless people and immigrant communities were left out of present decision making and historic decision making in the city and not just around climate, around housing and transportation and all types of decisions that affect our basic needs. So I think the coalitions that really started this from the onset were motivated by making sure that we fund clean energy projects in a way that isn’t regressive and that they fund clean energy projects through sources that could afford it. And that’s through corporate taxation. I felt like that was a huge strategy in all of this to make sure that community members were reassured that they weren’t going to pay the taxes to fund this, that corporations were going to hold that very minimal burden through taxation and that they would fund this in perpetuity.
John Farrell: I wanna mention for folks who might not be familiar, although we’ve covered it in other podcasts, kind of more of the logistics, but that was, I thought one of the beauties of the Portland Clean Energy Fund was that the tax is on businesses, but not just any business like local small businesses, it’s on large businesses, businesses that have significant sales both outside of Portland and inside of Portland. So it was really targeting those like chain stores that are very large and for whom the amount of tax we’re talking about was really rather negligible.
Maria Sipin: Thank you for emphasizing that. We are talking about billion dollar corporations. These aren’t your small businesses on your main street. They’re not your up and coming entrepreneurial endeavors. These are well established wealthy national institutions who make a living out of people investing in their business and shopping in their business and they can surely take the hit. Many of these corporations have not been paying taxes in the state, they just don’t. So this is one way to recoup that at least only in the city of Portland.
John Farrell: So Maria, I’m interested in talking to you then more about your specific role here. You’re a volunteer committee member with the Portland Clean Energy Fund. Can you talk about what that work is like, what you’ve signed up for there, but also I’m kind of curious like was that your introduction to it or were you also involved in the setting up of the fund or you know, working with some of those coalitions that were doing the advocacy work?
Maria Sipin: I was one of the first five committee members who were appointed by the Portland City Council in 2019. So I’m currently serving my four year term and I’m reaching the end of that soon this fall. And since 2019 we really got to work very closely with the staff who were just being hired at the time too. So you’ve heard the saying we’re building the plane as we fly it. That couldn’t be more true for PCEF. Many of the staff members were already established climate leaders in their own right working for other agencies throughout the state. They were recruited to start up PCEF and to make sure it had a strong foundation. Many of those staff members who were part of the original hiring for the Portland Clean Energy Fund are still with the team today and it is really nice to grow with them.

The first cohort of committee members, our original five plus the four that we selected, have been charged with advising the city staff who have been running the show mostly and the bureau leadership as well. We’ve also helped define the guiding principles for the Portland Clean Energy Fund and made sure that PCEF was rooted in community in all the ways possible and to make sure that the city staff were in tune with community needs and that they were checking in with community leaders organizations and all of the priority populations who need to be centered in this work. So committee members were really part of helping them create the structure, but we were also limited in our own power too. As you know, a volunteer committee isn’t the same as having a full-time staff person. So we got to tune in on an average of five to 10 hours per week at the height of PCEF to make sure that things were being considered as they developed the program. On top of the guiding principles, we were actively scoring applications with the staff for that first round of funding and also the second round of funding and just making sure that all the criteria would be met by the applicants that they were centering the principles of PCEF and that they were a good fit for the funding source that we had available to us.

So we’ve done a lot of grant making duties as you could say, but we were also ambassadors for PCEF making sure that all corners of the community were hearing about it, knew how to take advantage of it and were more aligned with the program if they hadn’t been aware of it before. And now we are heading up this big effort of developing PCEF first climate investment plan, which we are aiming for city council adoption by the end of summer or early fall. And so developing this plan involved a lot of hands-on work from the committee to make sure we were talking to everyone in the community, that we were checking all of the different aspects of the plan and the contents of it and engaging with the public in all the ways that we could virtually and in person.

John Farrell: I wanted to ask you, I mean first of all, five to 10 hours a week for a volunteer job is a lot. Oh my gosh, what an investment that you and your fellow committee members were putting in there. That’s just incredible. Can you talk a little bit, I mean you, you mentioned specifically like helping with the scoring of the grant proposals that were coming in for funding under the PCEF. Is there anything else that you recall that stands out in terms of like what was a really important role that the volunteer committee was playing in terms of setting up the program? For example, were you helping to pick the staff that were hired to do that work or is there something else that stands out to you from that time in terms of the commitment that you had and the amount of time you were spending?
Maria Sipin: You just reminded me about the amount of time that we spent because it was a whole lot for a volunteer group and I felt like the amount was more at a certain time because I became one of the first co-chairs for the Portland Clean Energy Fund <laugh> with my colleague Michael Edin Hill. So we <laugh> we had no idea what we signed up for and it was a big feat for us at a time when PCEF was experiencing a lot of scrutiny and that we were also trying to make sure that the committee’s voices were heard as much as possible because of the power that staff has over the program but also the limited, the limited power that we would have as volunteers. So we were trying to champion the committee in higher ways during that time, but I, I think some of the things that we were mostly responsible for were just being advocates all around the staff.

We had been observing them being overworked and spread thin. It was a small startup team who had to get a lot of money out the door through these different grant cycles and we noticed that staff really just didn’t have the capacity to do that work as well as manage all of the contracts that came with PCEF. You know, when you’re dealing with this much money, you have to manage a lot of paperwork that comes along with it. So while we weren’t hiring staff or vetting them, we were trying to champion them in as many ways as possible too with the city council. So we often echo the ways that we needed to grow the PCEF team, which at that time was limited by the code language, the original PCEF legislation that had passed limited the amount of staffing that PCEF could have because of the overhead costs and the cost to administer PCEF.

It was written in that they, they couldn’t exceed a certain amount but we knew immediately that PCEF had outgrown that. So we tried to champion with city council more staffing and more expansive ways to grow the program and to make sure it could be healthier moving forward. We did a lot of community engagement too. While we have an excellent community engagement team within the city, PCEF staff we’re, you know, an extension of community members as well as our committee. So we all championed community organizations and pockets of the community that maybe were often overlooked in other parts of city government. So we were actively bringing our identities to the space and also making negotiations in places that I think were necessary. Oftentimes championing certain causes and projects without obviously the conflicts of interest, but making sure that certain types of things were being elevated in the public meetings and echoing comments that we had heard from the community and reading through tons of email and feedback and making sure those things were making its way through all of the public forums that they might not have made them to.

John Farrell: Could you talk a little bit about how funds have been spent so far? I think you mentioned before that you were involved with the committee in helping to score the proposals for the first and second rounds of funding. Do you have a couple of examples of how the money is being spent that might help people understand like what PCEF was about?
Maria Sipin: PCEF has covered tons of projects in the last few years and the diversity of the projects and the impact of the projects are just continuing to grow. We’re really proud of the portfolio that we’ve recommended to council and while we didn’t make the final decisions for the projects, we did make recommendations on the combination of projects that city council should accept and adopt. So that’s one thing I would emphasize too, that we scored tons of projects, we got to see all kinds of combinations of ways that PCEF money could be spent in every round and then we made the recommendation to council, which then they would review and approve which ones they would move forward with. So we’ve, we’ve done a whole lot around being responsive to the climate conditions that we’ve seen in the city of Portland.

You might have heard about cooling Portland. It’s our climate resilience program that came about because of our record heat waves that we’ve experienced in past summers and unfortunately those heat waves resulted in unprecedented deaths in the city, mostly from vulnerable populations and community members such as older adults and people who are much lower income who lived in older housing units. So we responded quickly with that project and it’s been a worthwhile investment. So June, 2021 and those events really spawned this program. We’ve also funded tons of projects that make sure that we have a stronger and healthy and more inclusive workforce. We center workforce and contractor training in a lot of our investment and make sure that we create cleaner jobs and jobs that are equitable and continue to bring wealth into communities that have never experienced that. So our workforce and contractor investments are some of our shining elements of the program, but also have so much more work to do.

We know that wages need to continue growing for those who do this clean energy work and we know that the internal laws and practices need to evolve as well and so much of PCEF can’t touch that either though. So we rely on the state and counties and other decision-making and legislative bodies to ensure that they too are evolving their workforce and contractor practices and laws. So that’s something to look out for. I think that’s a hot topic because of so many things evolving with labor at the national level and as well as at the state level. So we hope to continue being an example of good ways to grow workforce and contractor development and make sure that younger generations can also take advantage of the different programs available to them so that they can see successful pathways into clean energy right away.

John Farrell: If people are interested, as I imagine some will be who are gonna listen to this podcast, in learning more about the breadth of the different projects that you funded, is that somewhere on the Portland website where folks could go and see like what’s been funded and get a sense for that diversity of projects you’ve supported?
Maria Sipin: Absolutely. We keep all of our documents updated so you can see the details of the projects we’ve funded and you’ll shortly see stories of those successful accounts of those projects as we evaluate them. You can go to portland.gov/bps/clean energy and that’s where you’ll find all of our events, all of our documents and the different vignettes about some of our successful programs. I also want to mention the African American Alliance for Home Ownership. There’s been a lot of investment in PCEF to make sure that we are investing in communities to stay in their homes and to make sure homes are sound structures to live in as well as, you know, clean energy, low carbon places to live. So that’s something to look out for as well. I think one of the parts of PCEF that I’m most proud of is our commitment to anti displacement and addressing a lot of the root causes of displacement and in the ways that people have to give up generational wealth or potential for generational wealth.
John Farrell: I love that you mentioned that because it’s one of the things I was also proud to see in the Federal Inflation Reduction Act was that there was money not just for things like doing solar or doing like improvements to getting a heat pump or an energy efficient appliance, but also to making sure that like indoor air quality was good and that you know, you could take care of like roof repairs or something like that that might support solar and I know some other states have done that as well. So it’s great to hear that you were thinking through that entire breadth of support that’s needed. That’s not just about clean energy specifically but about keeping people in their homes. I just think that’s terrific.
Maria Sipin: While the Portland Clean Energy Fund is primarily about clean energy and eliminating carbon, we are also championing clean energy projects that have multiple community benefits. So I think there’s a lot we have yet to evaluate and measure, but we know from what we’re seeing in the communities that PCEF is making a difference beyond just reducing carbon emissions. We’re also investing in people and making sure communities are whole and a lot of the transformation you’re seeing really isn’t grounded in carbon reduction. But I think there’s a lot that’s related to it and I think that’s what I can’t wait to see. As PCEF grows and evolves.
John Farrell: We are going to take a short break. When we come back, we discuss the forthcoming climate investment plan, evaluation of the projects that have been funded, and lessons learned from the challenge of setting up an ambitious city level climate fund. You are listening to a Local Energy Rules podcast with Maria Sipin, steering committee member for the Portland Clean Energy Fund recorded in June of 2023.

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John Farrell: I would love to ask you, speaking of evolving, about the climate investment plan that you’re working on as a committee. I guess one of my basic questions is how does it change or how might it change the work of the committee? Like is there is, you mentioned that you give recommendations to council on how to fund projects. Is this sort of handing off that responsibility by giving them a kind of more concrete plan or yeah, tell me more about this climate investment plan and how it’ll guide the decisions of the fund.
Maria Sipin: I’m excited that we’re coming up with a plan, as you heard me talk about earlier, I’m a transportation planner. That’s really what I bring to this space is to think about ways we can bring mobility justice to clean energy and to bring frontline communities even closer to power and decision-making and the climate investment plan. Obviously PCES first ever CIP is gonna guide how we spend over $750 million in the next five years. That’s how we achieve massive transformation in reducing greenhouse gas in the city of Portland. That’s how we become more transparent about how we are going to invest and that’s how we also announce and publish how we are going to advance racial and social justice ultimately. So I think it’s a substantial document to make sure that we are capturing at this point in time how we plan to move forward with the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

And it is a plan that’s developed by the people. It’s obviously gonna bring in the brilliance of community organizations who were with PCEF from the beginning. And it also brings along our best knowledge from technical experts, industry experts, and other community members who are also part of PCEF, even if not from the beginning. They’re also part of this whole ride. So I’m proud of what we’ve come up with. We’ve got our latest draft on our website and by the time folks tune into this and hear out this episode, you would be able to see that draft and following along our next steps this summer for stewarding it to city council adoption. So please keep up with it. It’s, it’s a plan that doesn’t necessarily change the committee’s power or responsibilities, but it just creates a clearer guidebook for us to make our investments. So one of the distinguishing things about the CIP are different investment areas that we clearly spell out there.

One of the newest parts of it that I’m excited about, which hadn’t been present in PCEF previously, is our transportation decarbonization area. And I think a lot of champions in the community have been excited to see this emerge because they have been calling for more transportation investment in PCEF since the onset of it. But it hadn’t been part of the initial code and it wasn’t what the voters passed in the ballot in 2018. So that’s something to look out for. And initially there’s some things in there about e-bikes that people are excited about. There’s more in there to invest in other ways that we have been falling short in the city around transportation, short of, of course building massive capital projects. But I think PCEF here helps increase transit use among our most vulnerable population and helps them have more resources to use bus and light rail, scooters, e-bikes and our award-winning programs at the city now to make sure people have multimodal access to getting around where they need to go.

John Farrell: I guess I just maybe want to invite you as a student of urban planning and with your focus on transportation, just nerd out for a second, is there anything in particular that you’re really excited about? I ask this also because my organization has had a long-term practice of, of focus on transportation has been around electric vehicles where we’ve been doing research on it for like 15 years. So it was very exciting to see that emerge now as like the way that things are going. But we’ve recently been doing a lot of thinking about whether or not cars is the best way to be focusing on community level energy use and whether or not there are other ways. So I’m partly asking this just out of curiosity in terms of what is this stuff that excites you? And you mentioned some of ’em about e-bikes and other forms of mobility, but what is the stuff that’s exciting you about how you reduce carbon emissions from transportation but do it without just like sticking an electric motor in a car?
Maria Sipin: People who know me know that I have always been championing people powered transportation since the beginning of time. <laugh> even way before I started my master’s in urban and regional planning. And also by the way, I think by the time everybody gets to listen to this episode too, I would’ve completed both my master’s in urban and regional planning and my master’s in public health. So I’m, I’m going to miss the student life but I find myself often in the middle of a lot of conflict and conversations around electric vehicles and electrification in general. I still really wanna make sure that we emphasize walking and biking and getting around in those modes over centering our solutions around the car. Cars, even though they are electrified, are still part of a lot of issues that we have in the city. Electrifying cars doesn’t solve our growing number of vehicular injuries and deaths. It doesn’t resolve our congestion issues.

And so we need to look beyond the car, especially the personal car, as a solution and make sure that we are still investing in mass transit and ways that people who don’t drive can still get around affordably. I know because of sprawl and the conditions land use conditions that we have currently, the car seems really appealing to many neighborhoods outside of the urban core and that’s the default ways that people do get around. But we still need to make sure we are bolstering all of the other ways that people can get around without the car and make sure that we provide the resources to do that. So I’m excited about PCEF venturing into transportation decarbonization mostly because I think we need to listen to the solutions that people want. And I’ve been working exclusively with youth who are really carrying the burden of the climate crisis now.

And if you listen to them, you hear about all the solutions that they see would be viable for them in their generation and it’s not around the car. So I’m excited about making sure PCEF continues to serve young people that PCEF continues to include young people in the CIP. Fingers crossed we’ll get more participatory budgeting in there and more opportunities for people outside of the committee or outside of the bureau to champion solutions without having to apply for a competitive grant. So I, I think there’s so much room to make sure that young people can identify solutions in PCEF. We’re not there yet, but I will be that noisy committee member who will continue elevate young people and the climate crisis and climate leadership forevermore.

John Farrell: I was hoping you could talk a little bit about, you know, now that there have been a couple of rounds of funding, what plans are in place for evaluating how PCEF funds are spent and whether or not they’re aligning well with the intent of the ballot initiative and of the subsequent rules that the city council and through the recommendations of the committee have adopted.
Maria Sipin: Evaluation is such an important priority for PCEF and the steering committee had been wanting to advance that the last few years. We have this first iteration of this CIP and in it there will be some evaluation mechanisms that will be detailed and applied soon enough. While we’ve already released different RFP cycles and the Cooling Portland program as well, we haven’t been able to fully evaluate all those rounds yet. But currently we are working on an evaluation dashboard that will be live to the public sometime this year. And it’s something that we’re working on that clearly lines up all of the measurable goals and criteria that has to be met by all grantees and how those projects are meeting them. And there’s different types of criteria for different types of projects. You can’t measure them all the same way obviously, you know, across the big clean energy projects down to the smaller capacity building and planning grants.

There’s just different ways to measure all of them. But we have heard the concerns of council and the ways that they want us to evaluate the program. We’ve listened to the community members who wanna see how the funds are being spent and what’s being spent so far so that that level of tracking is going to be available soon. But you can see on our website now just a little bit about each round of RFPs that we’ve released, but many of the projects have been so young and they’re still implementing them that we just can’t measure any of their outcomes just yet. But we hear you and we wanna make sure that all of this is viewable for everyone, especially those who want to implement some form of PCEF where they live as well. We know there’s a lot of lessons to be learned from PCEF and we can’t wait to publish those things.

I also wanna give a shout out to the researchers who have been talking with me at Portland State University who want to evaluate PCEF. There’s so much interest in the research community to really elevate all of the different lessons learned, but to see where in PCEF we can still improve. And I think there’s a lot of good research questions that are emerging there and I wanna make sure that I encourage researchers to step up and, and make sure they put their proposals in to evaluate PCEF. I think it’s, it’s a good time to be doing stuff like that.

John Farrell: You sort of alluded to this in your answer to the, the question we just asked you, but what, what would you say are some of the lessons learned or maybe advice that you would give for other cities, other communities considering trying to, I mean everything from like setting up the fund and where you get the money from to like setting up the administration of the program, making funding decisions maybe what do you think has gone really well and where do you think that you’ve learned things in the implementation process where you’d say to someone, Hey, you know, I, I hope you don’t do it exactly the way we did it. Or here’s how we fixed something to make sure that it’s working better.
Maria Sipin: A lot of things have gone really well. I wanna give kudos to the staff for PCEF and their resilience and their flexibility and the ways they’ve handled really tough times getting this program off the ground. I think something I have observed as a community member and as a committee member is how important it is to have an informed city council. You’re not gonna get climate champions on your council by default. Many of them are still going to want to dismember a great program. They still want to tear it up and change it up. But one of the things that PCEF has in the way that it was designed is that it was passed by the voters and you can’t take that away <laugh>. So continue to inform your elected officials, make sure they are along the ride with you in terms of becoming more knowledgeable, becoming more informed about how to do climate justice well rather than leave them so much room to critique it.

I think a lot of the critics were pretty misinformed and I think there’s a lot more room for PCEF and community champions to keep telling the stories of PCEF and the ways that we are making an impact. For a while we didn’t have a huge comms capacity or communications capacity with PCEF, so we got behind in telling the stories, talking to the media. We didn’t get to elevate the strengths of the program and talk about the data that we could have been talking about. So I think now we are learning from that and making sure that people get to see all the great things that are happening on top of all the areas that we can improve. I also think that there’s so much work we could do to make sure that community is just as informed as well beyond the nonprofit organizations who are always in the loop.

There’s so much more community out there beyond those who are represented by nonprofits. So I wanna make sure that young people, older adults and people who are just not affiliated in any way continue to find themselves in PCEF, that they see a space for them to make an impact. They see a place for them to benefit. I think that’s something that we could just do better all around with any issue that we’re charged with, whether it’s climate justice or transportation, decarbonization and participatory budgeting and greening the community. I think there’s so much more we need to do to make sure everyone’s informed and we’re not just gatekeeping a lot of technical knowledge that serves us.

John Farrell: I’m curious in what you mentioned about like having communications capacity and being able to tell the story of PCEF where I can imagine there being a lot of critique around the ballot campaign where you’ve got these big corporations that you’re going to raise the funds from saying all sorts of things to try to prevent it from getting passed. I, but I’m curious if like, if part of the communications effort was actually after you had it adopted and you were going through the process of setting up the fund. Like what were some of the critiques that you were hearing? You know, what were people concerned about? ’cause it seems to, I, I mean to me it just seems so exciting after it passed this opportunity and you know also like you’ve got some patience and some acknowledgement of like, hey, this is gonna take a while to set up and to get it running. Like it’s hard to imagine what people would’ve had a problem with and that process, but maybe there’s a lesson learned there for me and for other people who might want to replicate what you’ve done.
Maria Sipin: There’s a lot of communications work that we could do better around making sure that people know our process better. People aren’t tuned in to our public hearings that take place on Thursday nights for two to three hours at a time. And that’s sometimes where our best conversation happens. But the general public is not tuned into that. So they will go towards the local newspaper or the blogs that wanna critique PCEF and that’s where they’ll get their latest and greatest information. And that’s not what you would want as a program. You want people to go to the source and not the hearsay, not the comment section of the bike blog with mostly dominant culture weighing in about your projects. There’s just so much more we could do to be better ambassadors for PCEF all around and I think the city could do better around that.

Some of the critique is always gonna be around your projects are not gonna reduce carbon enough. There’s obviously a lot of technical experts out there who have a better idea of how to run PCEF or other special interests who believe this is all fluff. So I think that’s something where we could use any kind of help where we have technical experts who can uplift the ways that installing solar panels or investing in community gardens or making sure we keep people in their housing would help reduce carbon emissions all around. So all those brilliant minds out there who are studying this or already working on it as experts talk about the data, talk about how these programs are effective and share these examples. There’s always gonna be naysayers who, who will say that PCEF not doing enough and we’re not doing it fast enough. And I know they mean it with the best intentions, but I, I think if they knew how some things were working on the inside, they’d realize like that our pace is a healthy pace and that we’re moving at the speed of trust as much as we can.

There’s also a lot of work we can do to make sure we’re vetting contractors better. I know we have some challenges around awarding contracts to contractors who weren’t formally or properly vetted. And that’s something that the city’s working on now to make sure that we’re doing all the background checks in a way that’s not creating more barriers and that we are properly vetting different contractors in a healthy timeline to make sure that we are investing our money in the right places. So there’s a lot of lessons learned, but they’re not part of our downfall at all. I think it just makes us better, makes us find more ways to create solutions and to create a process that’s more thoughtful and responsive to different people’s needs.

John Farrell: Maria, is there anything I didn’t ask you about that you were really hoping to share about your work at the Portland Clean Energy Fund?
Maria Sipin: I really want to speak out to folks who are thinking about getting involved as a committee member or applying for that dream planning job with a climate institution. I find myself in that position often as a young professional, although I’m, I’m quite aging out of that fast. I wanna speak to folks who never saw themselves in these positions, who never would’ve dreamed to make an influence in the community in this way. I wanna say go for it. You have people out there who are supporting you now and who will support you as you take on these roles. Go and run for office too. I wanna make sure that you have people in your corner and that you know that people are out there rooting for you. We need folks in city council, we need people in the school board. We need you in the energy departments, we need you everywhere.

And I’m speaking to frontline community members. Those of you who are the children of immigrants or immigrants yourself, those of you who fight for farm workers and fight for reproductive justice, there is a space for you in clean energy and in climate justice. Trust me, I would’ve never imagined that. I don’t think you need all of the degrees to make an impact. You just really need to have your supportive networks. You need to have your values in place and you need to be aware of your voice and the power that you have with it. I wish someone would’ve told me early on what I could be doing with PCEF and gave me the encouragement I need to weather these past few years. I know it’s been tough for me and other committee members, but I just wanna thank anyone who’s doing this kind of public service.

Whether you’re an elected official who never quite, you know, found your allies, or you’re a community member contemplating a space on a committee or a board, please, you know, find your people. We’re out there. We need you and your leadership and your brilliant innovation that has yet to emerge and all of the things you know about your own life and your communities that you want to uplift, please take it on. And I would love to talk to anybody out there who is in the space now and who finds themself in a tough spot making the decision for and with communities. I wanna be there for anybody else who is in that space and I think there’s a whole network of us if it doesn’t exist, I’m sure someone’s creating it.

John Farrell: Well, Maria, thank you for the time that you have volunteered to this experiment in Portland, the Portland Clean Energy Fund, countless hours it sounds like that you’ve put into it and committed to it to help implement this really awesome initiative the folks there voted for five years ago. And thank you for coming to talk about it here on Local Energy Rules. It’s so great to share what is happening in Portland and to inspire others to try to replicate that in their communities.
Maria Sipin: You’re welcome. Thank you to you and thank you to the voters in Portland for making it happen. It’s been a real joy and I know the staff and the steering committee truly appreciate all of the ways you’ve supported us and championed PCEF in public forums, in public comment, and in all the ways that you have backed our decisions over the years. Talk to you soon.
John Farrell: Thank you so much for listening to this episode of Local Energy Rules with Maria Sipin, volunteer on the steering committee of the Portland Clean Energy Fund. On the show page, look for a link to the Portland Clean Energy Fund website, which includes an overview of the two funding rounds, success stories from those initial projects, and opportunities to engage in the public process. We’ll also link to the recently released Climate Investment Plan and other resources from Maria Sipin. On the website of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, you can find two prior Local Energy Rules episodes about the fund, including a 2018 interview with Alan Hipolito about the ballot initiative campaign and a 2020 interview with James Valdez about the logistics of setting up the fund. Local Energy Rules is produced by myself and Maria McCoy, with editing provided by audio engineer Drew Birschbach. Tune back into Local Energy Rules every two weeks to hear how we can take on concentrated power to transform the energy system. Until next time, keep your energy local and thanks for listening.


What’s the Status of the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund?

In 2018, Portland voters established a first-of-its-kind Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund. The fund, which is raised through a one percent surcharge on large corporations, supports community-led projects that create green jobs, increase energy efficiency, and reduce carbon emissions in the city of Portland.

That was a huge strategy in all of this: to make sure that community members were reassured that they weren’t going to pay the taxes to fund this, that corporations were going to hold that very minimal burden through taxation and that they would fund this in perpetuity.

The city has paid staff working on the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund, but it is also directed by a volunteer committee. The Portland City Council appointed Maria Sipin to the volunteer committee in 2019 for a four year term. Sipin and the other volunteers have helped to create guiding principles, scoring criteria, and try to generate support for staff, who Sipin says have been spread thin.

Moving Forward at the “Speed of Trust”

Part of the Committee’s charge is to evaluate the effectiveness of the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund. The evaluation criteria vary across projects, explains Sipin. However, few projects have gotten to the point where the Committee can measure their impact. Portland, like other cities, has been preoccupied with facing the global pandemic and historic heat waves (which spurred a climate resilience program called Cooling Portland). Sipin says that the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund tries to be responsive to community needs as they arise.

I think if they knew how some things were working on the inside, they’d realize that our pace is a healthy pace and that we’re moving at the speed of trust as much as we can.

Most recently, the Portland Clean Energy Community Benefits Fund developed a five year Climate Investment Plan. The drafting of the plan, which sets funding priorities for various investment areas, included several rounds of stakeholder feedback. Sipin is particularly excited to see transportation decarbonization as an investment priority in the plan.

Episode Notes

See these resources for more behind the story:

For concrete examples of how towns and 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 190th episode of Local Energy Rules, an ILSR podcast with Energy Democracy Director John Farrell, which shares stories of communities taking on concentrated power to transform the energy system.

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.

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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.