Portland’s $60 million a year clean energy fund needs climate accountability

Any grant writer can spin a yarn that creates the illusion that a given project will have some sort of climate benefits, but if you’re actually investing real money, you should insist on a payback in the coin of the climate realm:  a measurable and significant reduction in greenhouse gas emissions.  That standard isn’t being met, mostly because even the most basic questions aren’t being asked of projects submitted for funding by Portland’s Clean Energy Fund.

Former Portland City Commissioner Steve Novick, and long-time Chair of the Oregon Global Warming Council, Angus Duncan are demanding that Portland’s $60 million per year clean energy fund have at least minimal performance standards when it comes to reducing greenhouse gases.  A bit of background:  using the city’s initiative process, activists forwarded a ballot measure to create a gross receipts tax on larger businesses, with the proceeds dedicated to clean energy investments.  The voters approved the measure by a wide margin, and the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF) now is making grants to community groups for projects to promote greater energy efficiency, and, at least in theory, reduce greenhouse gases.  But in practice there are real concerns that the dispensation of grants is advancing either climate or equity considerations. As Novick and Duncan wrote in their Op-Ed:

Already, the fund has issued grants for projects that have nothing to do with climate or equity, including $100,000 for a rooftop garden on a yoga studio. For the program’s long-term success, we should ensure that the fund supports proposals tied to specific outcomes and cost-effectiveness goals. Unfortunately, the fund’s proposed scoring criteria do not provide any such benchmarks. Indeed, they are not really focused on outcomes at all.

The underlying problem is that PCEF doesn’t have clear standards for defining what constitutes either equity, or cost-effective greenhouse gas reductions.  According to Novick and Duncan, the application process is a kind of affinity-demonstrating beauty contest, with applicants chosen chiefly for the meritorious origins of the sponsoring organization rather than the characteristics of the project.

For example, applicants for large-scale grants of up to $10 million can earn no more than 8 points out of 100 for reducing greenhouse gas emissions. Think about that: “Clean Energy Fund” applicants could, apparently, get 92 points out of 100 without reducing greenhouse gas emissions at all. Meanwhile, applicants can only lose 5 points if their proposal will not “realistically result in intended outcomes.” So, you could get 95 out of 100 points even if your project has no realistic chance of succeeding. Applicants get a large number of points for “characteristics of the organization” categories, which may be important, but not more than actual results. The selection committee could simply require that organizational applicants meet certain criteria for diversity, etc., rather than allowing applicants to make up for a lack of substance by accumulating “organizational” points.

The idea of setting up a public sector fund to advance the twin goals of promoting equity and reducing greenhouse gases has considerable merit, but if it’s going to make any difference in either area, it needs to insist on measurable results and clear accountability.  The current PCEF regulations do very little to achieve this fundamental need.  Portland’s voters, historically disadvantaged communities, and the environment all deserve better.