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Portland's carrot-and-stick approach to saving energy

With the eyes of an energy conscious nation upon them, the people of Portland , Ore., have launched an extraordinarily ambitious conservation program. Between now and 1995, this city of 410,000 expects to cut its energy use by about one-third, thereby saving the equivalent of 13 million barrels of oil a year.

The key to this impressive goal is mandatory weatherization of small homes and businesses. It is the mandatory aspect of Portland's program that continues to be politically prickly, the one most closely watched by other cities wanting to follow suit.

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Under the Portland plan, homeowners, landlords, and businesses have until 1984 to voluntarily insulate their buildings so that they meet the requirements of an "energy audit." After that, they will not be able to sell their property or rent to new tenants until such weatherization is completed.

Backers of the program insist that the carrots being offered are much sweeter than this rather imposing stick. Among them: a "one-stop conservation center" where Portlanders may arrange for the energy audit, receive technical advise, and (perhaps most significantly) obtain financial assistance.

The city already has obtained the first-ever federal urban development action grant (UDAG) for an energy savings program. This $3 million grant, together with $16 million from local banks and savings and loan associations, will begin providing low-interest loans for conservation measures. Low-income homeowners will be able to obtain interest-free loans. A continuing loan pool is being developed by Portland Energy Conservation Inc., a recently chartered nonprofit city corporation.

Under the new city ordinance, only "cost effective" weatherization steps (averaging about $1,350 per home) will be required. This means insulation and other measures that would pay for themselves (at current costs) within 10 years.

President Carter has lauded Portland for its bold conservation effort, and indeed recruited the program's chief booster -- former Mayor Neil Goldschmidt -- to be US Transportation Secretary. So many other communities from around the country (more than 1,300 at last count) have inquired about Portland's plan that a form letter now is sent in response.

Adoption of the program by the City Council last August was preceded by months of public hearings and work by citizens task forces. A recent survey by Pacific Power & Light, the local utility, showed that 59 percent of Portlanders favor mandatory weatherization.

But the departure of Mr. Goldschmidt to Washington and the subsequent election to determine his successor indicate that considerable controversy remains over forcing people to conserve energy.

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Mayor-elect Francis Ivancie was the only one of five City Council members to vote against the mandatory provision, and this vote was every much a campaign issue in the mayor's race last month.

Weatherization may pay for itself in 10 years, Mr. Ivancie says, but the typical house here changes hands in half that time. Mr. Invancie strongly supports voluntary conservation measures along with development of new energy sources, including nuclear power.

Opponents of mandatory weatherization are trying to repeal it through a local ballot initiative. They failed to gather enough signatures to make the May primary election, but are trying again for the general election in November.

As the political pot continues to percolate, energy officials here are concentrating on the mechanics of making conservation work -- defining "cost effective," determining what energy audits will include, devising promotional schemes. They also are playing down the stricter parts of the program's requirements for now.They want to get people used to the idea and working at it voluntarily well before 1984 deadline.

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