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My View: Protecting our common home

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“What kind of world do we want to leave to those who come after us, to children who are now growing up?”

This was the moral question raised by Pope Francis last week. He went on to declare, “The climate is a common good, belonging to all and meant for all.”

As Oregonians, we value clean air and clean water, open spaces and natural areas. We understand that restoring our rivers and watersheds, protecting our trees and sensitive natural areas, and expanding parks, greenways, and community gardens to every neighborhood means a better and healthier future for our children.

The question is: What is our collective responsibility to address climate change, and to protect what the Pope calls “our common home?”

For the past two years, I’ve had the honor of leading our two public utilities, the Bureau of Environmental Services and the Water Bureau. We have learned a powerful truth: What’s good for the environment is also good for our ratepayers.

Take investments in green infrastructure by the Bureau of Environmental Services (BES). The old way was to build more pipes to keep stormwater runoff out of our rivers. The new way is to invest in green (rain gardens and green streets) and gray (pipes). It turns out that by harnessing nature, we get a better return on investment and actually save money.

BES is also turning human waste into clean energy and fertilizer. Our wastewater treatment plant produces more than 550 million cubic feet of methane each year. Rather than release this potent greenhouse gas into our air, BES has pioneered innovative ways to reuse it.

Twenty percent of the gas fuels boilers that heat BES facilities and equipment. Forty percent runs generators that power the plant, saving more than $500,000 in electricity costs each year. BES sells another 20 percent to local Portland business Malarkey Roofing, which uses the energy to help manufacture roof shingles.

With the help of a $2 million tax credit from the Oregon Department of Energy, BES will soon be able to convert the remaining methane into natural gas to fuel vehicles.

The treatment plant also produces biosolids, which once went to local landfills — an expensive and wasteful practice. For two decades, BES has instead partnered with Madison Ranches in Eastern Oregon to reuse biosolids as fertilizer. Each year, the crops we’re fertilizing capture more than 8,000 tons of carbon from the air, and produce more than 9,000 tons of oxygen.

Recently, Energy Trust of Oregon awarded BES $284,810 for its successful green practices. Why? Because the bureau made its aeration tanks at the treatment plant significantly more energy-efficient — using less electricity, once again saving ratepayers money.

The Portland Water Bureau is also a leader in green energy. The bureau actually produces clean energy while delivering some of the best drinking water in the world to Portland homes and businesses.

Solar panels owned by the bureau have generated nearly 127,000 kilowatt hours of energy since 2010. That’s the equivalent of burning 47 tons of coal.

We also generate renewable hydropower. The powerhouses at our Bull Run Watershed dams generated nearly 88 million kilowatt hours of hydropower in 2014, which we sold to Portland General Electric. That’s enough energy to power about 8,000 Portland homes for an entire year.

Our utility customers can also go green — families can sign up to receive paperless e-bills. We have enrolled nearly 15,000 customers, saving ratepayers about $86,500 in printing and mailing costs each year — not to mention more than a quarter-million sheets of paper.

In the years ahead, we will all be asked to do more. A shared commitment to a more sustainable future is good for our economy, our environment, our families — and for the bottom line.

The city’s utilities are proud to partner in this movement and committed to supporting cost-effective and innovative ways to protect our common home for generations to come.

Nick Fish is a Portland city commissioner. He can be reached at nick@portlandoregon.gov.