Here comes the sun

By Thomas Moerman

After equipping the city with solar panels, setting up educational programmes and promoting green energy, Barcelona now sets a new goal for the coming ten years: changing people’s lifestyle.


BARCELONA – “We were the first one in Spain with one of these machines,” explains Angel Gonzalez, technician in the trendy ‘design hotel’ Casa Camper, which is located in the centre of Barcelona, cleverly placed between several arts galleries and museums. The machine he shows recycles shower water and turns it into smell-less, clear flush water. “Everything in this machine is a biological process. No chemicals involved.”

After the water system, Angel shows the water tank that is heated by solar panels installed on the roof of the hotel. “Only in the beginning we had to make an investment, when we bought the best machines and technologies. Now it doesn’t cost us anything extra.”

Casa Camper makes an effort in being ‘green’. The heating system gets 60% of its heat from solar energy. Quite impressive indeed, and of course, good marketing for the hotel as well. However, part of this is actually thanks to some city officials, not to the hotel. Since Barcelona’s Solar Ordinance went into effect in 2000 all new and refurbished buildings need to get at least sixty per cent of their heating from solar panels. All throughout Barcelona, hotels, offices, schools, even a cemetery – really any kind of building – are equipped with solar panels.

Setting the example
The hotel is a good example of what the city wants to achieve in the coming ten years. The hotel, with its energy saving methods as recycling water, light bulbs that sense when they are no longer need to be turned on and solar power to heat the water, tries to make its customers aware of the energy they consume. Or at least, the hotel is aware of that, and tries to keep the consumption as low as possible.

The local government of the Catalan capital is now working on an energy plan that is supposed to reduce the energy demand of the city. This plan is a follow-up plan of an environmentally friendly path that the city started taking about ten years ago with the Solar Ordinance.

Success story
The first draft of the Solar Ordinance, the first of its kind in Europe origins from 1998. It was approved by the city council in 1999 and went into effect one year later. Construction companies had one year to adjust.

Before the ordinance, Barcelona had 1,650 square meters of solar panels installed, or 1,1 square meters per a thousand people. In 2004, four years later, Barcelona had already 21,500 m2 installed (16,5 square meters per a thousand people). Two years later, in 2006, that number increased to 26,9 square meters.. The city’s objective is 96,000 m2 of solar panels by 2010.

“It has all the logic in the world to use solar energy,” says Gerard Pol Gili from the Energy Agency in Barcelona, the company that monitors the city’s energy plans. The Catalan capital did not have a lot other options for renewable energy. Barcelona is a very compact city, about a hundred square kilometres big but with one and a half million inhabitants. It doesn’t have a lot of wind and no waterfalls. What it does have, however, is 2400 hours of sunshine per year. “Look at all these roofs. If you cover them all with solar panels it will produce a huge amount of energy. It might be ideological, but yes, it is a very practical approach to it,” Pol Gili says.

Barcelona’s sunny plans made an impression on the rest of the country: after the success was evident more cities, the Catalan government and eventually the Spanish government copied the idea. National building laws now demand that new buildings have to be equipped with solar panels for the purpose of heating water. Those new laws also underline the importance of building insulation, the use of daylight and photovoltaic energy for commercial buildings (solar panels that actually create power, not only heat).

Energy Improvement
The Solar Ordinance is just a small part of the plans that the Catalan capital has in order to reduce its carbon footprint. After the Solar Ordinance, the Plan for Energy Improvement was launched in 2002, setting goals for this year, 2010. The plan was made with Europe’s objective of getting 12 per cent of its energy needs from renewable energy by this year. It includes education, communication and legal frameworks in order to reach the energy improvement goals.

“We are definitely not reaching that 12 per cent this year,” explains Gerard Pol Gili. “But keep in mind that European goals are set on a state level, not on a city level. For a city it is really hard to achieve 12 per cent or 20 per cent of renewable energy.”

It is difficult because a city can’t generate as much energy as it is consuming, Pol Gili explains. “A city isn’t too big. It is simply too small, too compact to generate all that energy. You could make it work with fossil fuels, because of the high energy density. If you want to do it with renewable energy though, you first of all have to reduce the demand.

One could say that the city of Barcelona has been – and is – chasing rainbows. Only 65 per cent of the goals that were set for this year are actually reached. In the past ten years, the energy consumption and energy demand had gone up, despite of the fact that there was an actual energy plan for the first time. Only in the last two years, when the economic crisis struck hard, the energy consumption went down a little.

Twenty-twenty
That is exactly what’s on the agenda for 2020: reducing the energy demand in order to meet the EU-2020 plan to get the carbon emissions down by 20 per cent.

The Energy Agency realises that this might be a bit too ambitious: “In a city like ours, to reduce emissions by twenty per cent is very ambitious. You can read cases throughout Europe of cities that want to reduce it by half. When we look at Barcelona we wonder how is that’s possible,” Pol Gili says.

The plan for 2020, now called the “Plan for Energy, Climate Change and Air quality” instead of “Plan for Energy Improvement,” focuses around energy demand, which is the key to everything according to the Energy Agency.

Now the city has increased and is still increasing the share of renewable energy in the energy mix, it is time to reduce the actual energy usage. The city’s scientists and engineers are trading in the hard numbers and technical projects in for social science. “People do not always know what they are paying for, how much they use. If we can somehow affect this behaviour, it would be a great step forward. More and more things need energy. Laptops, televisions, cars, those are things that will not change. But what we can do is try to educate people of the energy they use. If they become more aware of that, people will consume less energy,” the engineer says.

Education and communication were already part of the plan for 2010. There is one photovoltaic plant per district with a display that shows how much energy it is creating. The plants come with displays that compare the energy that is generated with something that is less abstract, so that children and students become more aware of the energy they are consuming.

The energy plan, however, comes with some fine print. The new plan has been divided up in two parts: one for the city, and one for the municipality. The latter one is affecting everything that the city hall should adopt in order to reduce its own co2 emissions – things that the local government can directly control, such as public buildings. The other half of the plan, the city plan is everything that is affecting the city, something which the city cannot guarantee that it will be accomplished. “We will make sure that the municipal part will be accomplished by 2020. We will do our best to accomplish the rest,” Gerard Pol Gili explains.

Back at Casa Camper, they plan on doing that anyway. “It’s a good thing that the city is making plans like this, I think,” Angel Gonzalez from Casa Camper says. “Our Hotel would do it anyway, simply because we think the environment is very important.”

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