The Portland City Council unanimously approved Wednesday the Portland Clean Energy Fund’s second round of grantees. The funding will support projects including clean energy retrofits for qualifying residents’ homes, regenerative agriculture, green infrastructure and training in green technologies.
“We’ve become a global model on what local governments can do to address climate change with communities that have been and continue to be historically impacted by climate change and significantly under-resourced,” Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the fund, said.
A total of 141 organizations submitted 162 applications ranging from $20,000 to $10 million. Originally, 66 proposals were recommended for a total of $111 million but one grantee withdrew its application. The fund’s staff may recommend up to 10% above the grantee’s requested funding but the fund cannot surpass a total of $121,964,895.
Critics of the climate action program say the fund needs more accountability and transparency to ensure money is being well-spent by grantees.
During the meeting, Commissioner Rubio introduced a clause that requires staff to delay distributing funds for 45 days to allow an additional review process. That may include additional reference checks for newer organizations and additional reviews for organizations requesting more than two times their prior annual revenues or that are three years or younger.
Despite two delays for a vote after city council started late and a fire alarm went off in the first hour of the meeting, the second round is a major increase from the first round of grantees, which totaled $8.6 million. The original funding was divided among 38 nonprofits.
Commissioner Jo Ann Hardesty applauded the work that staff and community organizations have done to get the program going. But she rejected the additional review process.
“If we’re gonna put additional barriers on grantees because they happen to be a community of color members, I would reject that explicitly,” she said.
Hardesty, who helped create and pass the program, said the fund has received much scrutiny since its inception and hopes it’s the last time the council makes adjustments to make people happy.
“I think we have to actually set a standard and hold everybody to the same standard and not do something different because there are entities out there that don’t want to pay into the Portland Clean Energy Fund and don’t want it to be successful she said.
The climate justice program is managed by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. It was approved by 65% of voters in 2018. It was estimated the fund would generate between $40 to $60 million on a 1% tax on large retailers. But it generated tens of millions more — so far a total of $180 million in two years. That allowed the second round of grantees to ask for more money for their projects, according to program manager Sam Baraso.
The fund continues to face challenges. Most recently, The Oregonian reported the fund failed to publicly disclose all grantee applications on the fund’s website as required by city code.
Magan Reed, a spokesperson for the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability, said when the program implemented a new process for submitting grant applications for its second round, it required staff to use different coding on their website to add the applications.
“We anticipate having the full round of applications online next week,” Reed said in an emailed statement. “The applications will be posted, in compliance with City Code, after the final vote is made by Council. This practice is consistent with when the information was posted after round one.”
OPB requested the applications before the vote. Reed shared 14 applications, which combined are more than $3 million in grants, she said.
In an emailed statement, Commissioner Rubio said she’s committed to ensuring the fund functions with “unparalleled accountability, responsibility and transparency.” She said the city code does not specify when applications should be posted for the public but agrees that it should. Rubio said the applications have been available to the commissioners, the mayor, and council staff for the past month.
Last year, the Portland city council voted to rescind the fund’s first major grant after reports of prior misconduct from the organization’s executive director. That prompted the program to add an additional review phase for grant applications but background checks weren’t required. In March, Portland Business Alliance CEO Andrew Hoan called on the city to halt the program’s spending and to reconsider how funds should be distributed.
64 projects approved
Of the 64 projects approved, Forth’s Green Energy and Mobility project is a $3.6 million dollar grant dispersed over three years that will be in partnership with Hacienda Community Development Corporation and Helping Hands Reentry Outreach Centers.
Executive Director Jeff Allen said the organization plans to improve Helping Hands’ Bybee Lake Hope Center by adding solar panels and upgrading to a more energy-efficient air conditioning system. He said doing so will help lower energy bills and protect residents during heat waves.
But what Allen said he’s most excited about is a fleet of 30 shared electric bikes for residents at the center.
“It’s almost a mile from the nearest bus stop, which has very infrequent service levels,” he said. “So it’s really difficult for the people who live out there to get to any kind of services, whether it’s a 12-step program or doctor’s appointment or job interview and so these electric bike folks are going to be a real game changer in helping those access services.”
Allen said this project grew out of an earlier planning grant with PCEF that enabled Forth to work with more community organizations to better understand their needs and challenges and how Forth could help.
Allen said the fund made its application process even more thorough. He said it showed that the fund was not only concerned about whether the project was good or where the funds are going, but the capacity of the partner organizations and if they were involved in the process of developing the project.
But he recognized the fund is still reorganizing and finding new ways to improve its processes.
“You’re seeing a lot of really interesting, innovative, impactful projects already coming out of this process and I’m certain that they will continue to improve the process and refine the goals and it’s just going to get better over time,” he said.
In last week’s city council meeting, Mayor Ted Wheeler asked about the application process and for more accountability, as he said there have been “noticeable issues” during the first round of funding.
“It’s a substantial amount of taxpayer money, it is to go towards an important cause, it is our collective responsibility to make sure that funding is spent wisely,” he said during the meeting.
Wheeler said he was pleased the fund has clear benchmarks for what would qualify an organization to receive a grant. He also commended the fund for its refinements on the applications and review process — including how many homes will receive clean energy retrofits to carbon emission reductions.
But he asked how the fund would ensure the grants are being spent wisely. He said the fund also deserves rigorous vetting as it continues to grow.