Portland Clean Energy Fund recommends $111M grants

Portland’s first-of-its-kind climate justice program is proposing nearly $111 million in grants aimed at fighting climate change and advancing racial and social justice.

The Portland Clean Energy Fund’s grant proposals — its second round of grants — span a range of clean energy projects. Those include clean energy retrofits for qualifying residents’ homes and regenerative agriculture or green infrastructure projects like gardening and farming. The grants would also provide training and apprenticeship opportunities in green technologies such as solar panel installation. A total of 141 organizations submitted 162 applications ranging from $20,000 to $10 million. Sixty-six proposals were chosen.

“In our inaugural grant round, the maximum an organization could apply for was about $1 million and this year it was $10 million,” the fund’s program manager Sam Baraso said. “That was just a big difference in terms of the type of projects that we knew would come through the door and so we’re just excited to see what’s possible at that scale.”

The program has been celebrated as a first-of-its-kind climate justice program created and led by communities of color. It’s managed by the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability. Last year, the climate action group recommended its first round of grantees totaling $8.6 million. The funds were divided among 38 nonprofits.

But the fund has faced challenges, including changing how the fund would review and vet applicants. That’s after the city council voted to rescind the fund’s first major grant of $12 million after discovering a pattern of prior misconduct by that organization’s executive director.

Juana Pascual Pascual holds her child Frankie Gaspar, 2, at their second-floor Portland apartment where they’ve lived for six years. She said her family suffered during last year’s heat dome with just bottled water to find relief. She received a free cooling/heating unit through the Portland Clean Energy Fund working with Verde.

Kristyna Wentz-Graff / OPB

That process prompted the climate action group to add an additional review for applicants asking for more than $100,000 or if their organization is less than three years old. The fund also asked applicants how their proposals would reduce greenhouse gas emissions after an audit earlier this year said the program did not have essential climate change goals.

According to the recommendation report, the estimated lifetime reduction in greenhouse gas emissions for some of the projects is estimated to be roughly 300,000 metric tons of carbon emissions. That’s equivalent to greenhouse gas emissions from almost 65,000 gasoline-powered cars driven for one year.

“We’re really excited about that,” Baraso said. “This isn’t just about carbon emissions, it’s central to that but also about equity and making sure we’re inclusive of those who have historically not benefitted.”

Overall, about 2,400 residential units will be retrofitted with energy-efficient appliances. Other proposals include building three community solar projects to create easier access to clean energy for low-income residents and a range of workforce development and job placements aimed at bringing in younger people.

A year of challenges

In December, the fund received criticism after awarding its first major grant of $12 million for its new Heat Response Program— a program created to deliver and install cooling units to those in need after nearly 100 people died of heat-related illnesses last June.

An investigation by The Oregonian found the fund’s initial recipient, Diversify Energy’s executive director Linda Woodley, had previously served time in prison for defrauding energy companies and amassed millions of dollars in liens for unpaid federal and state taxes. Under the program, Diversify Energy would oversee the purchasing of all the cooling units, distribute them to selected organizations and track how many units have been installed. The city council voted to withdraw the grant in January and selected Earth Advantage to administer the program. The fund offered a $10 million grant to the organization to install 15,000 units over a five-year period.

Later that month, the fund decided to add an additional review phase for grant applications but declined to add background checks.

“I want to thank staff for acting on our growth areas and lessons learned with seriousness and diligence as we get this new, first-of-its-kind program off the ground,” Commissioner Carmen Rubio, who oversees the Portland Bureau of Planning and Sustainability and PCEF, said in a statement. “I am committed to seeing that the Fund functions with unparalleled accountability, responsibility, and transparency.”

In March, Diversify Energy’s Woodley then filed a lawsuit against the city for damaging her reputation and mishandling the process of withdrawing the grant. The fund also received criticism from Portland Business Alliance CEO Andrew Hoan who called on the city to halt the program’s spending and to reconsider how those funds should be distributed.

The recommendations will now go to the City Council on July 13. Residents can testify in person or in writing.

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