On the 17th and 18th of September 2020, 12 Spanish cities* met for the first edition of the mPower Regional Events. The encounter was framed around the question of how cities can take more ambitious leadership in a democratic and just energy transition. Punctuated by more in-depth energy transition stories from six of the cities participating, the event formed the beginnings of a dialogue around how to bring energy sovereignty to a city and its local stakeholders. What could the city officers learn from and with each other in the areas of energy efficiency in buildings, expansion of publicly owned renewables and citizen participation? We share some of the main insights from the event in this blog.

The Spanish city delegates were following the invitation from mPower participant Cádiz, one of the oldest cities in Western Europe, famous for its atmospheric old town, beautiful beaches and more recently progressive energy transition work (cross link to other mPower article). However to the great disappointment of organisers and participants alike, instead of experiencing the city and their work in real life we had to, as happens so often in the current reality, meet in the virtual realm instead. But we decided to make the best of a difficult situation and with the fantastic moderation by Alba de Campo, advisor on energy issues with the Cádiz municipal government and much appreciated generosity and commitment from all participants, we had two very productive and enjoyable half days together.

A new dynamics for the energy transition in Spain

Spanish cities have committed themselves to ambitious targets. Many have signed the Covenant of Mayors with the commitment to reduce CO2 emissions by at least 40% in 2030. They share both the vision of a carbon-neutral city by 2050 and the difficulties in defining the pathway towards this goal.

The online event gathered some of the most outstanding Spanish cities for an exchange of challenges and solutions. Their common denominator is the very strong political will to change the energy model in a way that serves the citizenry, including the most vulnerable. At the national level, the paradigm shift towards a stable and long-lasting support of renewables and the recognition of the need for stronger participatory processes has gained momentum with the new Energy Transition Minister, Teresa Ribera and her team.

At the national level, the draft Climate Change and Energy Transition Law and the National Integrated Energy and Climate Plan (to be adopted beginning of 2021) aims to reduce greenhouse gas emissions nationally to below 230 MtCO 2 eq in 2030 (reduction of GHG emissions by at least 20% with compared to 1990, which is ~30% compared to 2016).

The trajectories mainly contemplated in this law are:  Promotion of renewable energy, Transition from fossil fuels, Commitment to sustainable mobility and the Energy and Climate Strategic Framework through the draft National Integrated Plan Energy and Climate Change (PNIEC) 2021-2030 and the Just Transition Strategy, where the Government propose even more ambitious targets, such as 74% renewable energy in the electricity generation and 42% of renewables in final consumption

Currently, the Energy Transition Ministry is running a public consultation on community energy. Some of the information shared by event participants around this topic could be useful for drafting better legal frameworks in this field.

Meanwhile just recently representatives of civil society organisations stressed their concern in a meeting with Teresa Ribera about the upcoming wave of supply cuts that thousands of Spanish families may suffer during the pandemic.

Rethinking the energy system from the municipal perspective

The lively and very honest discussions between city workers covered three, closely linked and overlapping topics:

  • Energy efficiency and buildings
  • Publicly-owned energy
  • Citizens participation

Participants also shortly touched upon food, circular economy, micro-mobility…the city is an ecosystem with its own metabolism and the list of areas that are part of the large urban transformation processes is long. From Navarra to Andalusia, whether small, medium-sized or big cities, the energy transition was described as an exciting, but difficult task for all city officers.

Let’s travel to Cádiz first: the city’s very first steps in the radical new energy policy were about raising awareness and knowledge of political representatives and city workers. This led to the creation of a wider learning space that materialised through two permanent round tables: One focused on the energy transition, the other on energy poverty.

Marta Morera, technical expert at Rubí City Council told the story of the Rubí Brilla project that started in 2011. Wanting to improve energy consumption first, Marta and her team started by investing 3.000 EUR in monitoring and data collection of the 112 public buildings. Already by the end of the first year they had recovered this investment through energy savings and reduced energy bills. “We are constantly wasting water and energy. Analyzing the data we have with energy consumption criteria is fundamental to achieving results. From the savings made in energy efficiency, investment has been made in energy poverty prevention. This is the magic tool that helped us in Rubi Brilla to grow little by little.” says Marta today.

Juan Herrera from El Prat de Llobregat shared their experience and confirmed that “the access to data is crucial”. Nevertheless, he emphasised the importance for the local administration to be a role model for the citizens. In El Prat, 1MW of PV panels is planned to be installed on the city’s most profitable public roofs creating five “power islands”. These “islas” will thereby be demonstration places for self-consumption and shared consumption within a 500m perimeter. Juan and his team calculated an amortisation term of 3,5 years of the investment. Moreover, the most vulnerable neighbours will be able to benefit (at no cost) from surplus energy that would be produced during an estimated 100 days of holidays during which the public buildings will be closed.

No matter what area needs to be tackled, city officers agreed unanimously on the need to expand services and reach out to new players. The local authority alone cannot achieve its energy and climate objectives without involving all stakeholders. When it comes to efficient buildings, this requires including owners and property managers, as they are a key agent for the housing rehabilitation and the implementation of renewable energies. One-stop-shops are a helpful tool and grow in number thanks to projects such as ‘Save the Homes’ involving València City Council.

While optimising demand is crucial, several Spanish municipalities have decided – in parallel- to take control of the energy supply. Cádiz was one of the first cities in the country to set up a public energy distributor and producer ‘Electrica de Cádiz’: the company is 55% publicly owned (5 out of 9 members of the board of administrators are public authority representatives) and is used a powerful tool to implement the political vision of a renewable and affordable energy supply. It produces 100% renewable energy and opened a self-consumption business line in the beginning of 2020.

The conversations around how to bring more renewable energy into the public sphere revealed a large number of constraints that still hinder (or slow down) municipal action in the field. Some of the barriers mentioned by participants were the streamlining of the administration and administrative procedures, the rigid and incoherent regulatory framework and the unbalanced power of established big electricity distributors. Another factor to take into account would be the low investment capacity of families, companies and public administrations. There was also much talk of rethinking the transition in the Covid and Post-Covid era, and the involvement of citizens in the whole process in this new reality.

One idea for a ‘low-hanging’ fruit came from València and their integration of renewables through solar trees. With this innovative urban furniture the city brings renewables closer to the citizens and makes them visible in their everyday life. This is a small demonstration project, so to say the tip of the iceberg, as it comes with extensive in-depth initiatives like the support to energy communities or fiscal incentives for homeowners installing renewables.

As solutions and possible lines of work, it was suggested that it was necessary to promote basic consensus pacts on energy with a long-term vision within the municipalities, an impulse to public-private financing and to encourage ordinances that promote installations. The role of renewable energy communities (RECs) and trained multidisciplinary teams is also another key factor.

The appetite of citizens seems to be important in certain places. As we heard from Eloi Badía, Councillor at the city of Barcelona, the city managed to get 10.000 EUR of citizen-funding within 10 days for a public renewables project.This unexpected success which allowed to complement public funding, shall soon be replicated at Metropolitan area level.

During the group discussions, it became apparent that local authorities’ new role is to embark the whole of society on the carbon-neutral journey. As stated by Joan Herrera from the city council of El Prat: “The best option is ‘bottom-up’”. Many of the municipalities said they are still at the beginning of a permanent involvement of citizens, companies and further members of civil society. Participants noted that citizens’ support for causes such as the climate emergency is increasing in Spain. However it became very clear in the conversations that we are still far from a change of mentality where people truly feel empowered and ready to become active participants in a fair energy market. It was noted that public awareness-raising campaigns on energy and climate issues are not enough, and what is required is a democratization of decision-making processes by opening up institutions to citizens.

An interesting contribution came from representatives of Vila Nova de Gaia and energy agency Energaia, the only participants from neighbouring Portugal. During the mPower Exchange programme they developed a proposal on how citizen control could be regained over the public lighting distribution network by forming a local Renewable Energy Community with the aim to take on distribution management concessions.

Carlos Sánchez, CEO of València Clima y Energía, said about the participation process behind the creation of energy communities: “We don’t want to define the conditions of what an energy community is. We want our citizens to feel free and feel comfortable because the model they have defined is the model they want.

Being part of a bigger movement

As we have often experienced with mPower encounters, maybe the most important outcomes for many participants were the opportunity for an honest exchange with peers and the sense of possibility that comes with being part of a bigger movement. When asked what he takes away from the event, Carlos from València wrote: ‘1. To share experiences and a sense of community. 2. A promising future due to the quality and diversity of innovative proposals and personal commitment.’

The group of cities decided to continue working together in a more regular capacity to compare notes and share information and models for replication. This will be actively supported by mPower partner Energy Cities as a network facilitator.

Moderator and host Alba del Campo concluded the event with the words: “We have a little more trust in each other to pick up the phone and ask for information because we think what the other has done is very good and we want to take it to our town hall. Here there is no kind of ‘race’ between cities. And if there is a race, it is not against each other but for the people, because with the climate emergency we have no time to lose.”

*Participant cities:

  • Donostia (Gipuzkoa)
  • Pamplona
  • Olot
  • El Prat de Llobregat
  • València
  • Figueres
  • Viladecans
  • Barcelona
  • Palma de Mallorca
  • Rubí
  • Cádíz
  • Vila Nova de Gaia (Portugal)