A democratic transition to renewable energy in Cádiz
By Alba del Campo, City of Cádiz
As in many other Spanish cities, two new left parties (For Cádiz Yes We Can and Winning Cádiz) took over the local government of Cádiz in an unprecedented election in May 2015. They inherited many economic and social problems such as high levels of debt and unemployment. The city council’s energy management was inefficient, there was no commitment to renewable energy, and nothing had been done to reduce energy poverty in the years leading up to 2015. The municipalist local government started working to transform the local energy model from within the town hall and the municipal energy company, with the collaboration of its citizens. Two open energy committees were founded, which make decisions by consensus and ensure that everyone has access to affordable renewable energy. In 2019, the two parties formed the political coalition Go Ahead Cádiz and won again with almost an absolute majority, allowing them to continue the democratic energy transition.
Internal evaluation and public audit
An initial internal evaluation of the problems in the energy model exposed a lack of transparency, a lack of investment in maintenance, and a lack of knowledge and skills within the municipality. Data on consumption was not available, making it impossible to trace high energy losses. Previous plans for sustainable energy only existed on paper and had to be rewritten from scratch. One of the Energy Transition Committee’s first actions was to conduct a public inquiry through 450 face-to-face interviews – the first of this kind ever done in Spain – about basic energy knowledge. Interviewees said that they didn’t understand their energy bills. More than 90% of participants also voiced their wish for a 100% renewable model in Cádiz.
Energy Transition Committee
In order to improve the situation and initiate a transition, the municipality created an open Energy Transition Committee (MTEC), where organisations, specialists and employees from the municipal energy company Eléctrica de Cádiz, academics and energy cooperatives work together. The MTEC sets priorities which guide next steps. These include commitments to reduce energy consumption, increase energy efficiency and renewable energy use in public buildings, take advantage of the high solar power potential (Cádiz has 3,000 hours of sun each year), end energy poverty, foster a democratic and just transition for citizens and create green jobs for workers.
Committee against Energy Poverty
Spain faces high levels of energy poverty, while multinational energy corporations continue to extract profits. 15% of the population live in homes that are not adequately heated, often because their power has been cut off due to unpaid bills. In order to tackle energy poverty in Cádiz, a working group consisting of civil society organisations, energy specialists, the department of social affairs of the municipality, political parties, people affected by energy poverty, and employees of Eléctrica de Cádiz and the city council was founded: The Committee against Energy Poverty (MCPE). The open round table is organised around consensus-based decision making and consultations between the different actors.
In Spain, only a few large energy companies benefit from government energy grants intended to support low-income families. The programme does not apply to low-income customers of smaller suppliers. In order to change this, the local government steered a participatory process to launch a grant that Eléctrica de Cádiz could offer its customers. The result was a grant system that not only cuts bills for those facing financial challenges, but takes into account individual households’ specific energy needs, while providing support and training in energy management. This Alternative Social Bonus aims to work with vulnerable families to prevent situations of late payment and fees from the outset. It enjoys broad support from civil society and all political parties apart from the right-wing party. The latter tried to sabotage the project until the end of their term as a member of the board of directors of Eléctrica de Cádiz.
After the 2019 elections, the municipal government resumed the proposal. By now it has a majority on the board of directors and managed to pilot the bonus in 30 homes. However, just as it was about to be expanded to 300 families, the COVID-19 pandemic broke out.
Meanwhile, hard work has been done to improve access to energy. For each of the three shock plans developed to tackle energy poverty, eight unemployed people were hired and trained as energy advisers. As a direct result, 548 families received advice during home visits, and an additional 1,400 people took part in public energy workshops. Subsequently, 1,057 families had their contracts modified, enabling savings between €60 and €300 a year, with the average saving being €90. The team also helps with minor repairs to improve people’s quality of life. This is one of the ways a fair energy transition can create much needed, socially valuable jobs. This policy has been awarded a prize by the Spanish Energy Agencies Association (EnerAgen).
Transforming Eléctrica de Cádiz
While most former municipal assets in Spain have been privatised, leaving little space for municipalities to intervene, the new governing alliance has control over Eléctrica de Cádiz, a semi-public energy company. 55% of the shares belong to the municipality, ensuring public control, while the rest belong to Unicaja and Endesa, two of the multinational corporations dominating the national energy market. Eléctrica de Cádiz consists of two entities: an energy retailer that markets energy, and a distributor in charge of the infrastructure.
One of the central commitments of the MTEC was achieved in January 2017, when Eléctrica de Cádiz started supplying 100% certified renewable energy. The enterprise provides 80 per cent of the city’s households and all municipal buildings with certified renewable energy. Considerable reductions of 58,500 tonnes of CO2 and 93 grammes of radioactive waste were achieved (up to October 2018), without a price hike for consumers. Energy efficiency measures in municipal buildings also reduced consumption by 11 per cent over three years.[i]
Eléctrica de Cádiz now also serves two other small municipalities in the province of Cádiz, offering an alternative to Spain’s often-criticised oligopolistic energy market. Public ownership of an electricity distributor allows municipalities to use revenues to cover costs of energy supplies, realise re-investments and finance social projects. In 2016 and 2017 alone, Cádiz allocated €500,000 to subsidise the electricity bills of families who cannot afford to pay.[ii]
Encouraging self-consumption and energy literacy
Eléctrica de Cádiz has started a transformation that cannot be reversed, manifesting a shared commitment of those who enter the municipal government. After initially buying green energy, it has now started producing it. In just one year it has built nine photovoltaic plants in the city. The company’s next step is the offer to install solar panels at business premises. After an evaluation of current consumption and the potential for savings, specialists from the company provide a cost estimate and feasibility check for free. Financing can be individually adapted, and any surplus generated feeds into the grid and can be deducted from the company’s energy bill.[iii]
To promote the breakthrough of domestic energy generation in the city and show that renewable energies are in the hands of the people, the city council also approved a real estate tax benefit of 50% for homeowners who want to install renewable energy after consulting the Energy Transition Committee.
The energy transition project in Cádiz has achieved some concrete results. As well as incentives for generating renewable energy and energy-efficiency improvements, consensus-based decisions made at the energy committees have initiated a change in political culture too. Citizens are encouraged to scrutinize the traditional oligopolistic energy model and become participants in a collective energy transition. While there is still much to do, this shift in political culture makes Cádiz well-equipped for the challenges of the future.
About the author:
Alba del Campo is a journalist, ecofeminist and activist in the democratisation of energy. Since 2015 she has worked as an advisor on energy issues with the Cádiz municipal government, coordinating the energy committees and local energy policies. Previously, she worked as an assistant and as head of communication for a Green MEP in the European Parliament. She also produced two documentaries on the current energy model and the alternatives under construction: #Oligopoly2. The electric empire against everyone (Eurosolar Prize 2013) and #OligopolyOFF. The citizen energy revolution begins (2015). Both are available on the internet.
This blog article was co-created by Lukas Toedte and is part of the mPOWER blog series in which cities and towns share how they are building better energy futures.