Turning up the heat on energy

3 October 2022

The energy crisis, part provoked by the war in Ukraine, which is forcing many households and businesses to put plans on hold, needs action at all levels. In Porto, as Vice Mayor Filipe Araujo explains, supporting people through good energy policy is something that the city has already been working on for many years.

Porto is a leader at the local level in its ambition on energy policy. What have you been working on recently?

First of all, we have been growing a lot. In the city, 12% of the population lives in municipal social housing and, in recent years, more than €150 million has been invested in ensuring energy efficiency in these buildings, which has increased by 45% over the last decade. This means better living conditions for people not only in regards to their thermal comfort but also in dealing with matters such as energy poverty, which has made the headlines lately, and it is something that we have been focused on alleviating for a long time.

This also links to some current EU-level ambitions on a renovation wave, which, for us, takes many forms. We have been working on many facets of energy efficiency, including installing new windows and solar thermal collectors for domestic hot water, also aiming to decrease people’s energy bills.

Now, in order to anticipate our goal of becoming carbon neutral by 2030 as one of the 100 smart and climate neutral cities, we need to go further. We are developing the first renewable energy community in social housing. It will be partly financed through an European Economic Area grant and will affect 181 housing units and a nearby school. It is a very innovative project because it also includes an energy storage facility and an electric vehicles (EV) charging point.

Everyone agrees that energy communities are the way to move forward because we know that there are many opportunities to be gained from energy production in this way. We have been trying to work with our national government for some time to determine how we could launch something like this, and the project is still quite new.

Actually, considering how the idea can be scaled up, the EU should have a role in finding ways to encourage such investments locally. And that’s because energy communities hold so much potential for winning some of the broader strategic goals that the EU has, such as climate neutrality.

Our goal, if all goes well, is to replicate this and to invest in a total of 6 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity across all the social housing that we own. Right now, we are installing 1 megawatt of solar panel (PV) infrastructure in 29 different municipal buildings, 25 of which are schools.

Another goal is to involve the community to understand the benefits of energy efficiency, so we are also working with the schools. In the longer term, our ambition is to position the city as an energy producer – something we have spoken a lot about also in the Eurocities Environment Forum, of which I am Chair. We are in the final stages of creating a financial incentive system to leverage the use of PV systems in households, which we hope will increase PV power by another 20 megawatts throughout the city by 2030.

I wanted to talk a little bit about the coming winter fuel crisis. You mentioned some actions you have taken to guard against fuel poverty, but are you planning to offer any additional support? Are there measures at the national level?

What’s important is what we are doing right now. We are still waiting for the national government to launch its measures. As you know, especially in the private sector, we need support from the government.

We may need to decide at the municipal level on things like when or how we heat our public buildings this winter. And all the new energy we purchase is only from renewables. So all our public buildings, swimming pools, public lighting etc., are powered as much as possible by renewables.

We just launched the Porto Energy Hub, which is run jointly by the Porto Energy Agency in the scope of an EU funded Horizon2020 project. We want to create a one-stop shop that supports citizens and all local entities in implementing energy efficient measures and renewable energy.

Communities are the key to energy production, but we notice that while many companies support the goal of energy production, many citizens still feel a bit lost. Our municipal one-stop shop will be open for everyone who wants to know how to do it. We will support them in understanding what they have to do, and all the benefits and incentives they can get. We believe that this will accelerate the transition we need.

Another thing we are working on is to support our municipal bus company in producing energy for both their electric fleet and the hydrogen station that will run our bus rapid transport system, which will include 12 buses running on hydrogen.

Overall, by supporting all these initiatives, involving the community, sharing our expertise, and bringing different entities together, we can hopefully support people in our city while moving toward a more sustainable living.

Looking at this more broadly, we have the target to become carbon neutral by 2030. One of the big tasks here is to encourage the shift in people’s behaviour away from using private cars, and towards public transport, for example. So, one thing we have been doing is reducing tariffs, including making it free for younger and older people to travel and capping ticket costs for all members of one family at €60 per month.

The European Parliament has recently voted to include municipal waste incineration in the EU Emissions Trading System. As such, waste companies will have to buy emission credits for each tonne of CO2 they emit when processing household, company, and industrial waste. This could prove to be an incentive for waste prevention and recycling. What do you think about this proposal?

Around 30% of the waste we produce as a municipality is not recyclable at the moment, although our goal is to recycle and reuse everything we have. In Portugal, we still send over 50% of all of our waste into landfills, so there is a lot of work to do, which includes finding ways to reuse all of our existing waste. In Porto, we have sorting facilities for plastics, organics, glass, and many of materials you would expect. However, those we don’t manage to sort are incinerated, and that energy feeds into our national grid.

When we are talking about including municipal waste incineration in the new emissions trading system, we have to think about the trade-off between incinerating and producing energy, or not incinerating and sending the waste to landfills. That’s the case in Portugal. I know different ‘business’ models exist in other countries, so the current decision on the Emissions Trading Scheme is a bit of a one size fits all approach to different systems. I’m a bit concerned that it will push people to rely more on landfills, which is much worse than getting energy from waste.

If the aim is to reuse or recycle what we produce fully, then we need to be much more careful with the carrots and incentives we use. In the longer term, of course, no one should get an incentive to keep the incineration plants working just because of the energy benefits. Rather, we should be aided to invest in learning about or developing ways to reuse the 30% of waste that we don’t know what to do with. There are many new innovative processes being trialled or in use that can create new jobs. And we could increase our capacity in areas where we already do something – but not enough – such as organic waste.

If you think about the success of glass recycling, where around 80-90% is successfully recycled, that can be a good model for seeing how other sectors can push to close their loops.

Porto is part of the Mayors Alliance for the European Green Deal, which strives to show that a sustainable transition is possible, with mayors and cities on board.


Alex Godson Eurocities Writer