Local clean energy fund is a bright spot in US election results

Portland, Oregon, will take $30 million a year from large corporations and spend it on climate protection. Support for the city’s most vulnerable populations is at the heart of the plan. Ben Paulos outlines planned initiatives.

While hundreds of cities and elected officials have made pledges and plans to cut carbon, only a handful have earmarked funding to take action. Portland is one of them and will build a clean energy fund.

Portland is one of the citites which have earmarked funding to take action against carbon emissions (Public Domain)

Voters delivered a strong rebuke to President Donald Trump at the polls in early November, with Democrats flipping control of the US House of Representatives and gaining seven state governor seats.

This “blue wave” is likely to lead to gains in clean energy and climate policy, since the issues have become increasingly partisan, and increasingly the domain of the Democratic Party.

But voters also spoke for themselves on climate issues, through state and local ballot initiatives. While overall results were mixed, a new clean energy fund in Portland, Oregon, is a bright spot, and potential harbinger of things to come.

State roundup: mixed results

The 2018 campaign was notable for the number of candidates explicitly running on clean energy issues. Sean Casten, cofounder of an industrial heat recovery business, rousted incumbent Peter Roskam in Illinois, while New Mexico governor-elect Michelle Lujan Grisham ran a TV commercial showing her climbing a wind turbine.

Voters weighed in on a number of state and local ballot measures to promote renewable energy and cut oil and gas drilling.  The results were not all good: a carbon tax failed in Washington state, limits to oil and gas drilling failed in Colorado, and a 50 percent renewables mandate failed in Arizona.

On the positive side, Florida voters limited offshore oil drilling, California voters rejected a repeal of a gas tax increase, and Nevada voters took the first step for a 50 percent renewables mandate (they will need to approve it again in 2020 to amend the state constitution, unless the legislature passes it in the meantime).

The Portland Fund

Perhaps the brightest result is approval of a local clean energy fund in Portland, Oregon.  By a 65 to 35 margin, voters imposed a 1 percent revenue tax on businesses that do over $500,000 in local sales and $1 billion in national sales per year.  Sales of basic groceries, medicines, and health care services are exempted.

While hundreds of cities and elected officials have made pledges and plans to cut carbon, only a handful have earmarked funding to take action.  Boulder, Colorado voters approved a “climate action tax” in 2007, raising $1.8 million per year to pay for energy efficiency programs.  Boulder is in the midst of a hostile takeover of Xcel Energy’s local electricity service, to create a new city-owned utility.

In May of 2018 voters in Athens, Ohio approved a “carbon fee” of about $1.70 per month on their electric bills to pay for clean energy programs, like putting solar panels on local schools.

But the Portland measure is the biggest by far, raising an estimated $30 million per year for the city of 650,000.

Opponents of the measure, organized as the Keep Portland Affordable Political Action Committee, argued that it will cost more like $79 million, which would be passed on to consumers.  While opponents didn’t deny the importance of action on climate change, they pointed to a state program that already funds clean energy programs, and emphasized the rising cost of living in Portland, a booming community with rapidly rising housing prices.

“This measure is a regressive tax that will impact the people of Portland who can’t afford it,” said Portland Business Alliance President and CEO Andrew Hoan. “A program to provide access to energy efficiency resources already exists. Let’s reform the program we have and work together to keep Portland affordable for everyone.”

Damon Motz-Storey, spokesperson for the campaign, pointed out that large corporations would be “a consistent revenue source that will produce the funds year after year.”  Given the big corporate tax cut approved by Congress earlier this year, plus low corporate tax rates in Oregon, he thinks “they can afford to pay their share.”

While the final list of affected companies won’t be known until the City of Portland releases their analysis next year, Motz-Storey thinks it will include about 120 firms, including Comcast, Walmart, and US Bank.

Going local

Even as the Portland fund won by a wide margin, a carbon tax in neighboring Washington state failed – for the second time. Measure 1631 did well in liberal urban areas like Seattle, but fared poorly everywhere else, especially in more conservative rural areas.

It is already prompting some in Seattle to think about a local, rather than statewide approach next time.  “The carbon fee initiative had very strong support in certain pockets of the state,” points out attorney Greg Wong, who helped draft Washington’s carbon fee initiative. “So maybe it’s something that those local entities should consider.”

The Portland vote benefited from the precedent set by the Portland Children’s Levy, approved by voters in 2002. The Levy collects $21 million per year through property tax to pay for programs that support “positive early development, school engagement and academic achievement, high school graduation, and family safety and stability.”

It was also helped by putting low-income people and communities of color first.  “Community-facing organizations” made up the core of the steering committee for the campaign, including the Asian Pacific American Network, Coalition of Communities of Color, NAACP, Native American Youth & Family Center, OPAL/Environmental Justice Oregon, and Verde.

A significant focus of the programs will be to benefit disadvantaged communities, while also cutting carbon emissions.  About half of funds are set aside for renewable energy and energy efficiency programs, and another quarter for job training.

“Regenerative agriculture and green infrastructure,” such as tree planting and community gardening, will get about 15 percent of funds.  Motz-Storey argues this will help make Portlanders more resilient to hot weather and other climate impacts.  “It helps prepare those that are most susceptible to the weather changes coming from climate change,” he says.

Tax collection for the Portland Clean Energy Fund starts in January and new programs will roll out in 2020.


Bentham Paulos is an energy consultant and writer based in California. His views are his own, and don’t necessarily represent those of any of his clients.

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