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Legislation attacks heat head-on

Oregon State Capitol building
State bill would provide $30 million for methods to help residents survive during brutal temperatures

Much-needed air conditioners should become available this summer to vulnerable Jackson County residents under bills working their way through the Oregon Legislature.

Roughly $30 million of $100 million in money for climate relief should be available for portable air conditioning units or to upgrade existing heating and air-conditioning systems.

Rep. Pam Marsh, D-Ashland, said almost 100 people died last summer throughout the state when a heat dome dominated the West Coast, with temperatures topping out at 116 in Portland and smoke choking the Rogue Valley.

“It’s really clear that it’s our existential crisis for our region and around the state,” Marsh said.

The $100 million in climate relief comes from several bills making their way through the Legislature.

House Bill 4028 would provide the Oregon Health Authority with $5 million to purchase and deliver air conditioners and air filters to homes of people in need.

Marsh said she expects the air conditioner money to be available by summer.

Another $10 million administered by the state Department of Energy would create a heat pump deployment program. It would provide financial assistance for installation and purchase of heat pumps, which provide either heating or cooling.

Low-income families would receive priority under the heat pump program.

"We cannot be a place where people die because their manufactured homes got too hot,” Marsh said.

The legislation will specifically target residents who have no access to heating and cooling systems, or who rely on a wood stove or use inefficient baseboard heaters, Marsh said.

The legislation is still being worked out in the short session, but local community-based organizations would help manage the program in Jackson County, Marsh said

In addition, a landlord program would provide $15 million to help install more energy-efficient air conditioners.

The money still falls short of providing every low-income family with air conditioning, but it’s a step in the right direction, Marsh said.

“It’s still not going to take care of all the vulnerable Oregonians,” she said.

In addition to air conditioners, the legislation would help upgrade homes to make them more energy-efficient.

With more air conditioners coming online, Marsh said the state wants to look at ways to shore up the energy grid through energy storage systems, as well as rebates for solar. Other investments will help rivers and waterways that have been impacted by the drought.

She said the legislation will likely invest in establishing electrical charging stations, particularly for medium and heavy duty trucks. The charging nodes will be primarily located along Interstate 5.

“We are moving to a future where all of our vehicles will be increasingly electric,” Marsh said.

In addition, Senate Bill 1536 would limit existing restrictions on renters’ installation of portable air conditioners.

Landlords would have the ability to prevent installation of portable air conditioners based on power service issues, risk of devices falling from windows or building code requirements.

Marsh said the bills, which are being discussed in the ongoing short session of the Legislature, are being driven by the devastating heat wave last summer as well as the two decades of drought that have hit the West Coast.

“Changing conditions are threatening the health and safety of people throughout the state,” Marsh said.

Reach freelance writer Damian Mann at dmannnews@gmail.com.