Climate mainstreaming and energy efficient transition in Donostia-San Sebastián

Published On: January 14, 2020Categories: Articles

By Jon Gastañares and Iker Mardaras Larrañaga, City of Donostia-San Sebastián, Basque Country


Donostia-San Sebastián lies in the Basque country, an autonomous region in the north of Spain. With nearly 200,000 inhabitants, the city is known for its rich cultural heritage, vibrant social life and the culinary specialities that can be enjoyed along the picturesque beachfront ‘Playa de la Concha’. The city attracts many tourists, and its economy is dominated by the service industry. 

Citizen empowerment campaign “Smart Kalea” pilot experience. Credit: Donostia City Council and Fomento de San Sebastián

Transitioning towards energy sovereignty in Donostia-San Sebastián

As a coastal city anticipating rising sea levels due to climate change, and as a member of the municipal energy alliance Energy Cities since 2015, the city’s administration is at the forefront of local energy transitions in Spain. 

The most recent document reflecting the city’s commitment to this transition is the ‘Plan de Acción Klima 2050 de Donostia-San Sebastián’, in which the municipality anchors its local transition policy firmly within the context of global climate change. At the heart of the document are the observations that energy consumption in San Sebastian relies heavily on fossil fuel resources extracted from other countries and that a clean energy transformation implies the responsible use of the planet’s resources. Hence the concept of ‘soberanía energética’ or energy sovereignty is central to the municipal vision: energy sovereignty replaces the extraction of fossil fuels and its damaging effects with community choice and control over sustainable energy sources locally. This approach reflects both the wish of the local administration to manage all aspects of local energy – production, distribution and consumption – and a notion of a shared global responsibility for a clean and just energy transition. 

The roadmap sets targets for the introduction of renewable energy, and for the reduction of energy consumption through increased energy efficiency. In order to achieve carbon neutrality in both the energy and transport sectors by 2050, the city has identified the following targets:

  • 80% of buildings will be highly energy efficient.
  • The energy consumption mix will be a minimum of 80% renewable energy.
  • Both private and public transport will be electric.

The Basque country recognises the need for pro-active municipalities that drive the energy transition together with citizens. The Basque Government’s energy agency has a programme ‘Energiaren Bidea–Euskal Energiaren Trantsizioa Udalean ere’ (The Road to Energy–The Transition of Basque Energy to the City Council) which supports local authorities in their efforts to replicate best practices, activate resources and participate in learning exchanges.

Municipal ordinance for energy efficient refurbishment 

The city’s transport sector and buildings are responsible for most of the city’s CO2 footprint (40.2% and 26.1% respectively). The contribution made by buildings is low compared to the European average (40%), which can be explained by the relatively mild weather in Donostia-San Sebastián, which reduces the need for heating. Nevertheless, the municipality has set ambitious goals for energy efficient buildings because it is aiming for the city to become close to carbon neutral by 2050. 

Refurbished buildings through Ordinance. Credit: Google Streetview

In order to achieve this, the municipality of Donostia-San Sebastián obliges refurbishments to be carried out according to energy efficiency standards that are higher than those mandated at the national level. 

A municipal ordinance has already proven successful in boosting energy efficient refurbishments with noteworthy results: Between 2009 and 2016, 825 roofs and facades of private buildings were refurbished. That means that 13% of the dwellings in the city went through some kind of retrofitting work guided by the ordinance. It is estimated that those refurbishments could have saved 4% of the total consumption of electricity and gas consumed in Donostia-San Sebastián’s residential buildings, which translates into a saving of five tons of CO2 emissions. This retrofitting continues: by the end of 2018, 1,169 retrofitting works had been completed through the ordinance.

Integrating smart technologies, sustainable mobility and energy efficiency

The city integrates smart technologies, sustainable mobility and energy efficiency as part of its engagement in the EU-project REPLICATE[1] (REnaissance of Places with Innovative Citizenship And Technologies). This project is a European research and development project that aims to deploy integrated energy, mobility and information technology solutions in city districts. The project, funded by Horizon 2020, is centred around three ‘lighthouse cities’ – Donostia-San Sebastián, Florence and Bristol. Other cities follow and observe the piloting cities, looking for ways to replicate and learn from their achievements. 

A newly constructed district in Donostia-San Sebastián, which is called Urumea Riverside, is nearly emissions-free, and the systemic approach applied to its construction is also benefiting existing neighbourhoods. The following three key measures have been undertaken in Donostia-San Sebastián as part of REPLICATE:

1. District heating and retrofitting

A new district heating system supplies energy to 1,500 new homes in the Urumea district and 156 older, neighbouring houses. It is powered by one 7,400 kWh powerplant with two biomass boilers.

Biomass district heating plant at Urumea Riverside District. Credit: Iker Mardaras

In addition, retrofitting needed in old properties has been partially subsidised. This means that residents benefit from energy savings while only paying 40% of the upgrade costs. The retrofitting includes facades, roofs, ground floor insulation and window replacements. The benefits of these works include a reduction of 35% in the primary energy used by residences, and a reduction of 75% in the CO2 emitted (due to the connection to the new biomass-fuelled district heating), along with guarantees of service quality and price stability.

2. Mobility and smart monitoring

A bus line connecting the districts to the city centre features two electric and two hybrid buses with accompanying e-charging stations. Electric mobility has also been expanded to the municipal fleet, with the aim of drastically reducing the district transport system’s CO2 footprint. Several private transport businesses are also part of the equation, participating with their know-how and helping to test prototypes in order to encourage a full transition towards e-mobility.

Energy consumption and the use of services are constantly monitored via a smart mobility platform (see below), enabling decision-makers and citizens to improve services on an ongoing basis. Open source data sets are made available to all citizens and telecommunication companies, and neighbourhood energy management systems offer transparent and easily accessible data which can help residential and commercial actors to become more energy efficient. Between July 2016 and July 2017, this smart and integrated e-mobility project had already prevented about 120 tons of CO2 being emitted. 

3. Information technology and infrastructure

An open-data Smart City Platform is under development in order to facilitate citizens’ participation in the energy transition. Likewise, in Polígono 27, the industrial zone of the Urumea Riverside District, the public lighting system has also been upgraded. By replacing 90 gas lamps with smart LED technology – where the intensity of light is regulated by proximity sensors – energy consumption was reduced by 7.494 kWh in just three months, avoiding the emission of 2,676 ton CO2 into the atmosphere.

Independent of REPLICATE, another project is the smart monitoring platform SmartKalea. It is run by the public development agency Fomento de San Sebastián, with the collaboration of the City Council’s Environmental Department. It has been installed in the Old Town of the city and in Altza neighbourhood, and it is expected to be extend to Sancho el Sabio avenue. Currently, over 87 homes have smart water meters and an energy consumption monitoring system (70 in the Old Town and 17 in Altza). These households also received advice about energy saving measures. Furthermore, a publicly controlled high-speed mobile network has also been installed, spanning the whole city. 

Basque civil society engagement for a democratic energy transition

Realising the ‘Plan de Acción Klima 2050 de Donostia-San Sebastián’ as the central roadmap for all municipal policies also requires the transformation of the local governance structure. Every municipal department is now assigned sector-related targets and obliged to abide by the road map, which provides a coherent and integrated planning strategy that can be referred to as ‘climate mainstreaming’. 

However, the municipality is also experimenting with new ways to facilitate real governance by citizens, creating a new and genuinely participative administrative culture. Often, ‘citizens’ participation’ is merely reduced to an additional process designed to further legitimise top-down solutions. But Donostia-San Sebastián’s approach is to strengthen and mobilise civil society to become part of decision-making processes from the very beginning, and to foster partnerships between relevant actors. The participation of renewable energy cooperatives and grassroots environmental organisations is also welcomed because it helps to stimulate collaborative governance and amplify the interests of informed citizenship. 


Donostia-San Sebastián recognises the importance of a municipal energy transition powered by civil society and active citizenship. By using municipal ordinances and participating in EU projects, the city aims to create a fair energy transition that is both local and global: It is driving a people-powered energy transition in San Sebastian and the Basque country that takes the international dimension of the fossil fuel extraction into account, contributing to a globally just energy transition.

About the authors:

Jon Gastañares graduated in biology and has a Master degree in industry and environment. He has been an environmental technician at the Commonwealth of Municipalities of San Marcos. He is currently Head of the Municipal Energy Efficiency department at the City of Donostia-San Sebastián. Jon developed the energy efficiency ordinance, the city’s Sustainable Energy Action Plan and its Local Agenda 21. 

Iker Mardaras Larrañaga is an architect and an expert in urban environmental issues who works in the Energy Efficiency department at the City of Donostia-San Sebastián. He has a Masters in sustainable building and energy performance. Iker has advanced knowledge of diverse energy efficiency tools and is skilled at applying the passive house standard and evaluating the sustainability of buildings. 

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.

[1] The Replicate project is a co-financed by the H2020 programme contract number 691735 (SCC1 European Call for Smart Cities and Communities) and coordinated by Fomento San Sebastian