Residents can get advice about their energy bills, contract and use in Barcelona

Guaranteeing energy rights

When Rosa Millet was made redundant from her job as a receptionist she struggled for months to find work. Learning about a new city service helping people during the energy crisis led her to a new role she really enjoys even though it makes her sad as well as happy.

The service has been so successful that it has seen Barcelona make the shortlist for the Eurocities Awards, with the winner to be announced at the Brussels Urban Summit this June.

“Energy poverty is increasing and it can affect anybody, but no-one knows how to manage this situation,” she says. “Sometimes it’s very hard to listen to people’s stories but it is good to be able to say ‘we are going to do something about that and help you feel safer.'”

Rosa’s colleague Gabriela Koifman had also been unemployed before joining the service and thinks her experience of not being able to pay her bills makes her better at her job.

“I know how the people we help are feeling and can empathise with them because I’ve been in exactly the same situation,” she says. “I tell them this and it creates a bond and makes it easy to work together to make them stronger.”

Gabriela is a big fan of the way the service helps people to help themselves, which in turn makes her feel she is contributing to society in an important way.

“We give families knowledge and this knowledge is power,” she explains. “So when they experience similar difficulties in the future they will be much better able to deal with their situation.”

We give families knowledge and this knowledge is power
— Gabriela Koifman

Training residents like Rosa and Gabriela and putting them at the heart of the city’s Energy Advice Point service was clearly an inspired idea. Empowering them through work that also empowers the people they support is a win-win for everyone.

And it has led to a much-needed big win for the city.

An unusual business model

Like everyone in Spain, Barcelona’s residents faced energy price rises among the most pronounced in the EU. Many also live in energy inefficient homes built before the 1980s, when building regulations had minimal insulation standards.

On top of this, Barcelona had its own unique challenges.

A 2018 study following a small pilot energy support project not only highlighted the city’s significant energy poverty problem, it also revealed that the project had only reached 10% of the most vulnerable households.

“There was clearly much more work to do, which is why the city decided to turn the original small project into a public service,” says Raquel Rodriguez, Energy Rights Coordinator of the Energy Advice Points service and Project Manager at Ecoserveis.

Around 155,500 people have made use of Barcelona's Energy Advice Point service

The city also decided to take a novel approach to the management of the new service. Two non-profit organisations were put in charge: Ecoserveis, an innovation consultancy specialising in energy, and ABD Welfare and Development Association, which is dedicated to the care of people at different points in their life trajectories.

“This model is a very good one because social enterprises like ours are very close to the neighbourhoods and the people who really need the service,” says Rodriguez.

social enterprises like ours are very close to the neighbourhoods and the people who really need the service
— Raquel Rodriguez

Two more social enterprises help Ecoserveis and ABD provide the Energy Advice Points across the city. The social services and housing departments are the coordinators at city level and the energy department and district offices are also actively involved. The annual 1.89 million budget comes from public funds.

Communities and connections

How the Energy Advice Points work and what they do are based around three interconnected goals: to ensure residents can exercise their energy rights and improve the energy efficiency of their homes; to promote employability among those out of work and struggling; and to take action in communities and enable residents to help themselves.

Achieving these ambitions meant going deep into the city’s districts to be in a position to identify households most in need and individuals keen to boost their chances of getting back into permanent work.

Twelve Energy Advice Point offices were set up across the city’s 10 districts. Here, 27 experienced energy advisors work alongside the 15 people from the employability plan taken on every year and integrated into the team after 265 hours of training in household energy issues and soft skills.

When the service launched, residents started seeing slogans for the new service all over the metro, in newspapers and on posters. ‘It’s not normal to be cold at home’ they read, and ‘We’re putting all our energy into preventing your electricity from being cut off.’

One of the 12 Energy Advice Points service offices around Barcelona

The service wanted to reach everyone with these messages, from those simply wishing to make their homes more energy efficient to those in extreme situations brought about by lack of income or health conditions exacerbated by energy poverty.

To reach the previously unreachable, the Energy Advice Points undertake a lot of work in the neighbourhoods and make connections with potential referrers such as health centres and firefighters.

Families looking for help can walk into their Energy Advice Point office for general advice about reducing their energy bills and preventing them getting worse. Or they can make an appointment for personalised help to understand their energy bill and explore ways to reduce it, such as changing tariffs. Or they can ask to have a home visit.

During these visits, an energy advisor assesses their home’s energy efficiency, detects supply malfunctions, discusses energy saving habits and demonstrates simple energy efficiency measures, such as insulation for windows and doors.

Averting danger and adapting to demand

Around 90% of the families that go to their local Energy Advice Point office are having difficulty paying their energy bills. Some have reached an even more dangerous point and are at risk of having their energy supplies cut off or this has already happened.

Energy advisers are in a strong position to help thanks to a 2015 Catalan law that guarantees residents’ rights to electricity, gas and water even if they can’t pay their bills.

Before the law, it would have been very difficult to protect residents
— Raquel Rodriguez

“Before the law, it would have been very difficult to protect residents in this situation,” says Rodriguez. “Since the law, we have a tool and working procedures for our energy advisors to use during their work with families.”

Thanks to its oversight of the service, relationships with users and connected way of working with public and social bodies, Ecoserveis and ABD have been able to flag up patterns in residents’ needs and drive changes to policy.

“We developed a retrofit policy for improving energy efficiency for families in municipal housing, for example,” says Rodriguez. “We also worked with the health department to make sure the energy supplies of families dependent on medical equipment are protected.”

The two global crises of the past few years have also kept the Energy Advice Points service busy.

First, the Covid pandemic forced the Energy Advice Points to switch to remote delivery, a process that saw Gabriela given a permanent job as one of two people running the new telephone service, which continues to this day.

Then the war in Ukraine led to a rapid rise in energy costs and an over-subscribed Energy Advice Point system.

“Families who didn’t have problems paying for their energy three years ago suddenly needed to use the Energy Advice Points,” says Rodriguez. In fact, from its inception to 2021, the volume of support provided grew by 45%.

Brighter future for families and employees

There is no doubt that the Energy Advice Points and their delivery model have had the hoped-for positive and widespread impact.

Resident Sanaa Dahbi brings home how important it has been for individual families.

The energy advisors practically saved our lives
— Sanaa Dahbi

“The energy advisors practically saved our lives. They prevented the supply from being cut off by completing a vulnerability report for us and helped us ask for discounts on our bills which meant they were reduced a lot.”

Looking at the big picture, the service has handled enquiries from 155,500 people, carried out 100,000 home audits, prevented 107,960 households from having their power or water supplies cut off and achieved savings of 700,000 linked to energy advice.  

One statistic in particular illustrates the success of the service in reaching the most vulnerable families. The previous €1 million cost to the city of covering the energy bills of this group has been reduced to just €50,000.  

The figures are similarly impressive for the initiative’s employment ambitions. In 2020, 80% of people trained to work in Energy Advice Points found permanent jobs once their contract with the service ended.

Results like these have convinced Barcelona to expand the Energy Advice Points service.

As well as opening more district offices, the city aims to do more work with the educational community to promote responsible energy consumption from kindergarten up, through a collaboration with the municipal programme More Sustainable Schools.

Knowledge is power, and the knowledge about how to save power should rest with everyone in society.

Tiphanie Mellor