Fighting energy poverty in Cádiz

Winds of hope: in the south of Spain, a radical mayor tackles unemployment and energy poverty at the same time.

Julio Camacho
20 April 2018

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Photo courtesy of: Plan of Action against Energy Poverty.Miguel Herrera never knew that he was wasting energy or paying more for it than he needed to. “I had no idea,” says Herrera, who lives in Cádiz in the south of Spain. “I couldn’t decipher the bills.” Until one day he got a call from the Plan of Action against Energy Poverty offering him the chance to take a course on energy use. So he went.

“I’ve changed the contracted power and the tariff, and I’ve become more aware through my pocket, because that’s where it hits you in the end,” explains Miguel Herrera, speaking from his small house. He has learned how to avoid wasting money. For anyone in his precarious financial situation, that feels like a triumph. 

María Isabel Martín and the team she coordinates helped him. After working for 22 years, when Martín found herself without a job, Cádiz City Council offered her the opportunity to start up a pilot project. Eight unemployed people were trained as energy advisers and given an eight-month contract to draw up the Plan of Action against Energy Poverty. The team gives families in Cádiz advice on how to optimize their energy contracts so they pay as little as possible. 

In just three months, the plan has run 60 workshops, given 640 people training on energy issues, and advised 70 families in their homes, reducing their electricity bills by 20-50%. 224 people have since changed their contracts to switch to a time-of-day tariff, another sign of the knowledge gained by workshop participants. 

Turning the page: fighting energy poverty

 Julio Camacho.

Credit: Julio Camacho.The plan has three main goals: it is creating jobs in the provincial capital with the highest level of unemployment in Spain – in early 2018, Cadiz unemployment stood at more than 30%. It is training families on energy issues; and providing help to those most in need. Such an ambitious idea was sorely needed in Spain, where the scourge of energy poverty affects 11% of households and the electricity corporations’ profit margins are among the highest in Europe. 

The results achieved by Miguel Herrera and the Plan of Action against Energy Poverty are just two concrete examples of the changes in the energy model launched by Cádiz 30 months ago. City Hall set up two permanent working groups that bring together the council, the municipal utility company Eléctrica de Cádiz and citizens. It is a way of working that ensures progress towards energy democracy.

The change is still “embryonic” acknowledges the city’s mayor, José María González: “We started by knocking on doors: the university, environmental organizations, professional associations, NGOs and social movements. Then we set up two permanent working groups on energy issues,” says the mayor, who describes this as “a good start.”

González became mayor in 2015, after the unexpected result of an election that catapulted his party, Por Cádiz Sí Se Puede (For Cádiz Yes We Can), into local government. As candidate for mayor, he ran a campaign that emerged indirectly from an open and almost spontaneous process, the 15M Movement, whose protests swept across Spain for several years, building on the social discontent that arose at the height of the economic crisis. 

The arrival of this new political party in City Hall was the culmination of an unprecedented political shift in Cádiz. From 1995 to 2015, Cadiz had been governed by the Partido Popular, a conservative party that saddled the municipal government with high levels of debt, at a time when the population of Cádiz was falling from nearly 150,000 in the 1990s to fewer than 120,000 today.

“A city with a future”

However, Cádiz was one of the few Spanish cities that had managed to keep its electricity company majority publicly owned. The new local government saw Eléctrica de Cádiz, which supplied and distributed electricity, as an opportunity to progress “a change in the city’s energy model that would create employment and benefit citizens.”

In that view lay the first step. The mayor of Cádiz believed that “being able to control how we produce and manage the energy the city needs is an advance in terms of sovereignty. And being able to prioritize people’s needs, an advance in terms of rights.”Until then, Eléctrica de Cádiz had garnered revenues of more than 35 million euros per year by supplying 380 million kilowatt-hours (kWh) of power to over 60,000 customers. It was an economic success story in Cádiz, an increasingly impoverished corner of the country, that was not producing a single kW of renewable energy in the city.

“The starting point for me is the desire to build a city with a future. Our local government is thinking about the future, seeking to build it together with citizens, the university and businesses.”

“Having an enterprise like this gives us a huge advantage over other municipalities, but we also need to diversify the city’s economy so that it’s not based solely on tourism. Also, there’s a willingness to involve citizens in the energy transition,” says Alba del Campo, an advocate of the participatory structure being deployed to advance today’s changes to the Cádiz energy model.

Del Campo is the journalist responsible for two documentaries – “#Oligopoly2: The electricity empire against the people” and “#OligopolyOFF: The citizens’ energy revolution begins.” She is also a member of the Platform for a New Energy Model, currently working for the political party running the city of Cádiz, though as an adviser to the Cádiz Provincial Council. Her views reflect her background as a well-known Spanish energy activist and a feminist. “You clear each hurdle as you go along,” she declares with the conviction of someone of her considerable experience.

Her arrival in Cádiz has contributed to the development of new networks and new structures to combat energy poverty. Del Campo is the coordinator of the Cádiz Energy Transition Working Group, one of two new municipal working groups promoted by Cádiz City Council with civil society participation. The other is the Working Group on Energy Poverty. Both were set up to find ways to achieve a fair energy transition. “The starting point for me is the desire to build a city with a future. Our local government is thinking about the future, seeking to build it together with citizens, the university and businesses,” explains Del Campo.

Dialogue, tools and political will

The community wanting to bring this about is marked by a combative history and a strong tradition in defending workers’ rights. Nevertheless, it is proving difficult to implement the new ways of working with citizen participation, a habit which was buried in the city’s social consciousness once formerly-active neighbourhood associations lost all their relevance. Those business and research communities who really need to be involved have been hitherto disconnected.

They are only now learning to build bridges and grow. Since the early 2010s, the University of Cádiz (UCA) has been making an effort to secure a leading role for itself in the progress Cádiz is making, from research on the sea to urban planning proposals. On the business side, Cádiz is a city lacking in large enterprises that could act as sponsors for social initiatives. The business sector is marked by instability and the overwhelming majority of businesses are small, employing fewer than ten workers.This is why the work is not so easy. Neither is it producing immediate results.

 Julio Camacho.

Credit: Julio Camacho.The Cádiz Energy Transition Working Group meets every two weeks with different sectors of society and is open to citizen participation. It has organised an energy literacy campaign in the city’s various neighbourhoods, running for two years. The Cádiz Energy Transition Working Group has also proposed various measures to be adopted by Cádiz City Council and Eléctrica de Cádiz. The first was for the utility company to shift to 100% certified renewable energy, a goal that Eléctrica de Cádiz has achieved since 2017. The company is also going to try to develop solar power.

Cádiz, one of the sunniest cities in Europe, has about 3,000 hours of sunshine per year. Astonishingly, no-one has ever taken the decision to deploy this potential – until now. In 2017, Eléctrica de Cádiz approved a new line of business in renewable energy. This led to the recent inauguration of its first self-sufficient power plant.

Another objective – in this case set by the municipal government in response to social demand – was to design a social tariff as an alternative to the central government’s discount programme, in order to guarantee access to energy for the most vulnerable families. The proposal stipulated that the social tariff would be designed by a working group open to citizens, which is how the Working Group on Energy Poverty was set up.

"We need to open up to energy policies developed collaboratively and tackle energy illiteracy."

Since 2009, 80% of families in Cádiz have not been eligible for the only assistance for those affected by energy poverty provided by the state. Their energy supplier was Eléctrica de Cádiz rather than the large national corporations like Endesa and Iberdrola that the central government discount applied to.

The Working Group on Energy Poverty launched its participatory process to design the Cádiz social tariff which was developed with input from numerous activist groups. The initiative is the first in Spain to be designed as an alternative to the state’s discount programme. It has a built-in requirement that beneficiaries must receive training in energy use. They are then eligible for a reduced tariff for the amount of energy and power that is enough for each family to live a dignified life and meet their energy needs. The social tariff has now been approved, although it still needs to overcome certain obstacles inherited from the old power structures, and put in place to prevent the new political parties in the municipal government from making these changes. 

“We need to open up to energy policies developed collaboratively and tackle energy illiteracy. But if the political will is not there to apply what the participatory energy forums are proposing, it’s a waste of time,” says José María González. For a model like this to work, “we need dialogue, tools and political will over the long term.”

A radical energy democracy

In just 30 months, the energy transition initiative in Cádiz has notched up several noteworthy achievements, all of them driven by the principle of radical democracy, with a focus on the city’s future and energy awareness. The mayor of Cádiz is convinced that the progress requires a vision of the future.

“The strategy is to believe in people, to create spaces that enable them to participate in a real and effective way on a permanent basis. The strategy is to believe in radical democracy and try to put it in practice. Of course, this takes time and there will be setbacks along the way, because there are negative forces at work and power struggles. But we have a duty to try,” he explains.

"The strategy is to believe in radical democracy and try to put it in practice." 

We should not forget one of the most important outcomes of this new model, job creation – first thanks to the Plan of Action against Energy Poverty, and later with the opening of the city’s Torrot company, which wants to take advantage of the clean energy system being created in Cádiz to manufacture electric vehicles for sustainable transport. The factory, which will start production at the end of 2018, involves an investment of 12 million euros and will create about a hundred jobs in the first phase, although this may increase to a payroll of 200 in the years ahead.

It is therefore no surprise that the course charted by this new model has attracted the attention of other cities who want to set sail on a journey like Cádiz, the breezy isthmus in this corner of southern Spain.

Buffeted from east and west, another wind is starting to sweep this dishevelled city through the minds and the day-to-day lives of so many people in Cádiz: the energy transition wind of change is whistling through an increasing number of cities as they join the fight against climate change all over the world.

What lessons can we learn from these particular projects? Have you been involved in something similar that you could tell us about? Do you know someone who has? Do please join us in comments space below, and help us build and network the knowledge.

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