A woman in a yellow shirt, posing for a photo
Sammie Lewis in her home. Isabella Garcia

Sammie Lewis can’t wait to receive her next energy bill. That’s because Lewis is one of the first Portland homeowners to benefit from a city grant that offers home “energy retrofits”—meant to save low income homeowners money on energy costs by switching homes to clean energy alternatives.

“I’m waiting for my first utility bill to see the savings,” Lewis said Friday, as she looked up at the solar panels newly installed on the roof of her North Portland home. “I am elated.”

Lewis was one of 20 homeowners to receive deep energy retrofits through the Community Energy Project (CEP), an organization that already provides energy-saving upgrades to low income Portlanders for free. CEP usually offers smaller upgrades or appliance swaps due to cost limitations. However, as a 2021 grant recipient of the Portland Clean Energy Fund (PCEF)—a city program that uses a surcharge on major businesses to fund green energy projects in communities most burdened by climate change—CEP was able to take on major retrofit projects for entire homes like Lewis’.

With an $800,000 grant from PCEF, CEP assessed 20 houses and provided approximately $30,000 of energy upgrades to each, depending on each house’s needs. For Lewis, that meant replacing her failing heat pump, improving the efficiency of her air ducts and insulation, and installing solar panels on her south-facing roof. While the full impact of upgrades won’t be known until Lewis gets her summer and winter energy bills, early estimates predict her energy bills will decrease by an average 38 percent and her energy consumption will reduce by 55 percent due to improved efficiency.

“This is exactly what the Portland Clean Energy Fund is meant to do,” said City Commissioner Carmen Rubio, whose office oversees PCEF, at a tour of Lewis’ home Friday.

Rubio and others in City Hall are nearly as pleased as Lewis to see PCEF grant funds begin to make an impact.

PCEF came under scrutiny in March when a city audit of the program found that it needed to develop a clearer oversight structure and specify its climate goals. The program was audited before the first round of grant projects had been running for an entire year—a timeline that City Auditor Mary Hull Caballero acknowledged as unusually early, but necessary due to the uniqueness of the program.

Hull Caballero said the audit’s findings were typical for a newer program like PCEF, but critics of the program pointed to the audit as proof that the program was irresponsible. Both the Portland Business Alliance (PBA), a lobbying group representing over one hundred businesses in the city, and the Oregonian editorial board called for PCEF to pause its next round of grant giving until the audit’s recommendations had been addressed and reevaluated. Those criticisms followed earlier complaints that PCEF had too much money in its coffers and wasn’t distributing it fast enough.

In an interview with the Mercury earlier this year, PCEF manager Sam Baraso said that the program needed to withstand the critics long enough for the first round of grants to start producing results that will prove the program’s value.

“It's when we've retrofitted all these homes of low-income Black homeowners and have preserved their ability to stay in those neighborhoods and help them reduce their bills and help them have an asset that they can pass onto the next generation,” Baraso said.

That time appears to be now.

Lewis is exactly the kind of person PCEF set out to help: a low income, Black senior whose limited income doesn’t leave much room for emergency home repairs, let alone energy-saving retrofits. Lewis found out about the PCEF-funded retrofits because of her existing relationship with CEP, validating the PCEF creators’ decision to distribute grants to organizations with existing relationships in the communities they serve.

Lewis had previously worked with CEP to do smaller repairs and upgrades, and had attended the organization’s weatherization workshops that teach people how to improve the insulation in their home with DIY-style projects. When the 116-degree heatwave struck Portland last summer and Lewis realized that her heat pump wasn’t cooling her home as well as it used to, she reached out to three different companies to try and quickly diagnose the problem. All three gave her various estimates to replace the heat pump, which can cost anywhere from $5,000 to $12,500.

Dismayed by her options, she reached out to CEP for advice because she knew she could trust the organization.

“I really hung in with CEP because they would come when they said they would come and they would do everything that was needed—what I asked for and even things that they saw that I needed done,” said Lewis.

Recognizing Lewis’s eligibility for the PCEF grant project, CEP told her to stop paying contractors and conducted an energy audit for her home to determine the full range of retrofits she could benefit from.

For Lewis, the retrofits not only increase the comfortability and affordability of her home, but also the long-term livability of her house.

“Just knowing my house is stable and I can remain in my home as a senior [is relieving],” Lewis said. “I like the safety of my home.”

PCEF is expected to distribute $100 million in grants later this year during its second round of grant giving.