Tax credits on electric cars, heat pumps will help low-income Oregonians, politicians say

Sammie Lewis of North Portland no longer has a home energy bill. Her house has been newly insulated and retrofitted with solar panels and a heating and cooling pump.

She updated her home with the help of a local nonprofit that leverages state and federal grants and tax rebates to help low-income Oregonians make their homes energy-efficient.

Thousands of Oregonians and millions across the country should be able to make similar upgrades with help from the federal Inflation Reduction Act, backers say. Passed in August, it directs $385 billion toward fighting climate change, largely through tax incentives, rebates and grants for renewable energy projects from the corporate to household level. 

For the Portland-based nonprofit Community Energy Project, the money will help many low-income residents. The nonprofit offers free energy-efficiency services, supplies and repairs to low-income residents. It helped Lewis with paperwork, paid for equipment and the installation.

“They came to my rescue,” Lewis said. 

The bill will help many more people like Lewis, said Charity Fain, the project’s executive director.

“We now have more money to do more of the work we’re most interested in,” Fain said. 

She and Lewis were guests at a panel in Portland on Tuesday hosted by U.S. Reps. Suzanne Bonamici and Earl Blumenauer, both Oregon Democrats, as well as U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, also a Democrat. The leaders, who each played a large role in getting the bill passed, said all Oregonians can benefit, not just those with enough money to buy new cars and houses.

Pelosi said Oregon’s quick embrace of renewable energy and work by nonprofits helping the lowest income Oregonians convert to renewables was exemplary.

“I think what I hear here is a model for the country,” she said. 

Blumenauer, who was involved in formulating tax credits in the bill, said the bill will enable more people to buy electric cars. 

The federal package includes a $7,500 rebate for the purchase of a new electric vehicle and $4,000 for a used one. Paired with those offered by the Oregon Department of Environmental Quality,  Oregonians could get $15,000 off of a new electric vehicle and up to $8,000 off a used one. 

Blumenauer said the bill will encourage people who have electric cars that are a few years old to upgrade to a new one, expanding the supply of more affordable used versions. 

“I think you’re going to be stunned at how fast that turnover happens,” he said. 

The bill also includes $9 billion for home energy rebates and allows homeowners to claim nearly one-third of costs against their income taxes. Nonprofits like Community Energy Project will be able to help people get those returns.

Blumenauer said the bill also will help people who aren’t buying cars or houses.

“You don’t have to buy a house to benefit from better insulation or heat pumps,” he said. Renters, businesses, property owners will benefit, he said. 

“They all have an opportunity with these elements to chip away at things that will make a difference to climate change and their bills,” he said. 

The bill earmarks more than $1 billion for the Federal Housing Administration to improve environmental conditions at low-income and subsidized housing projects, provide better access to transportation and enhance safety in disadvantaged communities. 

Another panel participant, Ernesto Fonseca, CEO of Hacienda CDC, a Portland-based nonprofit that helps people with low-incomes access affordable housing, said his organization will use the tax incentives to help make the 600 houses they’ve built since 1986 more energy efficient. He said that will save residents money in the long run. Hacienda serves more than 3,000, mostly Latinos in north and northeast Portland. Fonseca said the electric vehicle incentives will improve the well-being of people who live in Hacienda’s homes, which are disproportionately located near highways. 

Rebates of up to 100% of the cost of electric heavy duty vehicles, such as school buses and garbage trucks, are also in the package, improving air quality for all, panelists said. 

For Lewis, the transformation to a solar-powered home was transformational. And it’s one she is trying to convince her neighbors to sign up for, too. 

She said each time she received her bill over the last three months she was stunned. “My head would spin,” she told the panel.

She now has a credit with Portland General Electric. 

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.