Bringing the energy transition to people

The urgency of the threat we are facing with climate change represents a global emergency.

“Our house is on fire… I want you to act as if you are in a crisis. I want you to act as if the house was on fire,” was the succinct message delivered by Greta Thunberg to global leaders at the 2019 World Economic Forum in Davos.

The recently concluded COP27, which Thunberg skipped for the all-too-clear greenwashing, yielded few promising outcomes. Why are we not yet acting as if our house were on fire? Because, as Thunberg pointed out, “it is.”

They may have heard the message in Valencia, recently named the upcoming European Green Capital 2024.

“Imagine,” muses Corentin Girard, who works at the Climate and Energy Foundation of the City Council of Valencia, “we have health centres, we have libraries, we have fire stations in every neighbourhood. Why not have an energy transition office in each municipality to offer the services people need to fully engage in the energy transition? If there are no people working on this on the ground, we could keep having a lot of words, even a lot of ambition and money, but it wouldn’t have the impact needed for real change.”

I want you to act as if the house was on fire
— Greta Thunberg

For now, the more immediate dream that Girard shares is to set up two more energy offices in the city, modelled on the success of the first one.

A neighbourhood in transition

Originally set up in 2019, Valencia’s energy office represents three years of hard work. It is seen as a way to better connect and engage people in the energy transition, thus linking Valencia’s broader policy objectives to become carbon neutral by 2030 with the real lives of its people.

“We realised quite quickly,” states Girard, “that the barriers to achieving our objectives on energy transition were not solely technical or economic. We also had to consider social barriers where people were afraid to take this leap or had misleading information on what was possible or even legal.”

“For instance, some people were afraid that they were not allowed to install solar and that it would be illegal to share excess energy via a local energy community,” explains Girard.

“We’ve set up a permanent exhibition in our central office to answer some of the most common questions and challenge preconceptions.

We present the project as our ‘neighbourhood in transition’, and want to create the sense of starting this transition from the bottom up. That’s why we concentrate on basic things in the energy office. People often cannot pay their bills, and we look at their options.”

People often cannot pay their bills, and we look at their options
— Corentin Girard

While the office works closely with the city’s social services to ensure that those at greatest risk of energy poverty are not left out in the cold. The staff at the energy office will still ensure that savings measures are taken to reduce each household’s bill as much as possible and that they are also aware of national schemes such as Spain’s social energy bonds that offer a discount on energy prices.

In addition, for those who are not at risk of energy poverty but are keen to become pioneers in the energy transition, the office offers information on how to become more energy efficient.

Setup of a unique initiative

At the Energy Office
Learning and sharing

The office is itself a unique initiative. Based on four major concepts: the right to energy; energy savings; renewable energy; and cultural transition. Each of the four areas is headed by a specialised member of staff.

Girard’s colleague in charge of the right to energy is a social worker. The person responsible for energy savings is an architect; the one responsible for renewable energy is an engineer, and an environmental educator leads the cultural part of the project.

“From what we know, there is not much that addresses all these issues at the same time, in the same place,” says Girard. “And having an interdisciplinary team is something I would recommend to anyone else considering doing something similar.”

Each month people are welcomed into the office to join training workshops in each area. In addition, many other projects have been set up.

Under the cultural transition concept, for instance, a programme called ‘my centre in transition’ focuses on education in schools. The aim is not only to introduce the idea of energy transition in a school but to create a team of students who become part of the project.

“After the lesson, we ask the students to find where energy might be overused in their school or where they have a savings potential, and we then try to work with them to find energy-saving solutions over the course of the whole academic year,” explains Girard.

“It’s working well. People continue to ask year after year for this programme, and we’re starting to find ways to replicate it outside of the formal education structure,” adds Girard. “We started with what we call a ‘Universidad Popular,’ or popular university, where anyone can go, and we’re trying to develop energy communities and a new school for the right to energy programme where we want to move this from an individual issue to a collective solution.”

Rising energy costs

“Even though in Valencia we enjoy a good climate, you can improve the energy efficiency of your home with small tips and save money as well,” says Girard.

Professionals from the energy office can even come to someone’s house to install some of the materials found in the ‘energy savings kit’. This includes, for example, a timer so that your WiFi router, TV or water heater are automatically switched off at night.

The office additionally prepared some tips they included in their guidebooks. For one, they invite people to reduce the temperature of their boiler by as much as 20 degrees – from 70 to 50, for example. Another very effective measure is to place draught-reducing tape around the windows and doors, and the office will help households switch to LED lightbulbs – which can lead to an average of 90% energy saving.

the energy transition requires reducing overall energy consumption first
— Corentin Girard

“At the city level, we’re very conscious that the energy transition requires reducing overall energy consumption first and then ensuring that all the energy we use is 100% renewable,” says Girard.

A success worth replicating

“We are quite happy with the success,” concludes Girard modestly.

Last year, the office directly benefitted some 4,000 people, and more than 7,000 were reached indirectly via information disseminated by the office. In addition, 600 individual appointments were made, and 87 workshops welcomed over 1,100 people.

While the project originally started with municipal funding, the city has now sought EU funding, benefitting from the NextGeneration EU or Horizon Europe programme’s national provisions to replicate this success and innovate to provide new services.

First, the plan is to develop two more offices in the city and a third that will be a mobile unit. Then, why not an office in every neighbourhood, giving rise to local energy communities? And more widely, similar offices in every other European city to help ensure a successful energy transition.

At a time when urgent solutions are needed to deal with the current short-term energy crisis and medium-term climate crisis, investing in energy efficiency and knowledge-sharing measures at the local level offers a ready answer for global and international leaders willing to answer to future generations.

Valencia 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