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Portland City Council votes to fund local AC unit grant program

The program aims to make sure the city is better prepared for future heat waves. This summer's heat wave killed over 100 people in Oregon.
Credit: Mike Benner, KGW staff
Sam Murzea of MP Heating & Air Conditioning works on an AC unit at a home in Southwest Portland.

PORTLAND, Ore. — The Portland City Council voted this week to authorize funding to provide up to 15,000 portable air conditioning units, complete with installation services, to vulnerable Portlanders over the next five years.

The program is a direct response to this summer's unprecedented heat wave, which sent temperatures soaring to an all-time record of 116 degrees in Portland and was responsible for more than 100 deaths in Oregon. 

The Pacific Northwest typically endures relatively mild summer heat, and the region's cities have historically lagged far behind the the rest of the county in terms of the percentage of households with central or portable AC.

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But global climate change is rapidly altering what typical Oregon weather looks like, bringing hotter and drier summers and a greater potential for extreme weather. All of Portland's commissioners stated at this week's meeting that they viewed the AC program as an essential step to make sure the region is better prepared for future heat waves than it was this summer.

The new program will be part of the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability's Portland Clean Energy Fund. The ordinance passed this week allocates $11,495,820 for AC units — $7 million for the hardware and the remainder for the city's contract with purchasing partner Diversifying Energy.

A second ordinance planned for a vote in January will authorize the city to form partnerships with up to 30 agencies and companies for distribution and installation services, according to Sam Basaro, who leads the Portland Clean Energy Fund.

“We’re talking about often times units that weight anything from 50 to 70 pounds and are going to vulnerable folks’ households," he told the council, "so [the partners will] get them up the stairs and install them."

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The ideal way to tackle the AC problem is through deeper home energy retrofits, Basaro said, and the PCEF is pushing for that through other programs, but portable units are the quickest and easiest way to make sure vulnerable households have AC.

The need for speed is also why the procurement ordinance was brought to the council ahead of the installation ordinance. 

The program is aiming to install the first round of units in the spring of 2022, ahead of any potential heat waves next summer, and that means the city will be competing with major retailers for products that are going to be in very high demand, Basaro said. The council passed the measure as an emergency ordinance, allowing the city to begin ordering AC units immediately.

“This is the last month in which we can do that and have reasonable certainty of getting on the scale of two-, three-, four-thousand units this spring," he said.

The program's webpage does not yet appear to have information about how the recipient households will be selected, or whether interested households will be able to sign up or apply. KGW reached out to the Bureau of Planning and Sustainability for more information.