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Energy Poverty Advisory Hub
News article13 March 2023Directorate-General for Energy

An EPAH technical assistance from the experts’ perspective: The case of Barrios Altos, Lorca, Spain

Lorca city in Spain suffered an earthquake in 2011. This small city with 93.000 inhabitants, located in the southeast of Spain, submitted a proposal during the first Energy Poverty Advisory Hub (EPAH) call of technical assistance in 2022. The municipality wished to diagnose the levels of energy poverty, collect data on the state of the households and identify recommendations to carry out a renovation plan in the Barrios Altos neighborhood, one of the most affected areas by the earthquake. At first EPAH identified the local experts to assist the municipality. Carmen Sánchez-Guevara, Gloria Gómez, Ana Sanz and Marta Gayoso, architects and PHD researchers of the Polytechnical University of Madrid were paired with the municipality. That was the beginning of an EPAH technical assistance where the aim and expectations were surpassed by the reality and the work of the experts. Alba del Campo, from the EPAH team interviewed Marta Gayoso follwing the results’ presentation after 7 months of technical support.

How do you carry out the diagnosis of energy poverty in a neighborhood?  

The process has its complexity. We try to give the most comprehensive vision of the phenomenon. We start with a quantitative analysis using the available data bases, with data of incomes and expenses, and the land registry, between others. But also, we apply qualitative approach by visiting the location and making field work. It is the way of collecting reliable data in combination with the local reality. We combine the official data of the state of households with the pictures that show the damage of the buildings.

Landscape view of buildings in Lorca

We believe that in energy poverty studies we should also show the experiences lived by people and the management of their home. This is the ethnographic part that includes all social categories. For that, we use a toolkit of social research. We have been working for a long time with a perspective of feminization of poverty that we think is the most complete. It is the most helpful approach to design policies that fit with people’s needs.

What makes this diagnosis process different from others that you have done before?

The quantity of limitations found during the whole process. Energy poverty was one the problems from a long list. It was difficult to distinguish what was energy poverty from social exclusion situations. Barrios Altos is a neighborhood that has a lot of substandard housing, with a marginal subdivision and a lot of limitation in terms of data. It has been very difficult, because data are missing in relation to those households. We talk about people that are invisible. They are out of the available data that measures our society: such as tax or damage databases.

What are the biggest challenges that you faced during the technical assistance?

We faced difficulties in the three parts of the research process: design, field work and data analysis. Due to internal communication challenges at the city council, the social services technicians joined the working group late. This meant that the field work plan we had designed did not match the reality and possibilities of the neighbourhood of Barrios Altos.  There were questions that did not make sense, group methodologies that, being a fabric damaged by drug trafficking, were not viable.

During the fieldwork, our biggest problem was the lack of autonomy. Due to the characteristics of the neighbourhood, I should adapt myself to the agenda of social workers, and that limited a lot the groups of people that I could interview. Also, the language was an enormous obstacle as we couldn’t talk to migrant population. We couldn’t include in the study their needs or demands or reflect the overcrowding living conditions.

An emotional support would have been desirable. We are architects, technicians and I have encountered strong situations of structural violence. After the week of the fieldwork, I asked for two days out off work because I needed to assimilate what I have seen. Cases of gender violence among others.  The field work interviews in the houses expose situations that go beyond energy poverty. Another challenge was related to data collection. The city council committed to provide data that they did not provide and we didn’t feel as much interest and collaboration as we would have liked but, on the other hand, we do feel the care of Social Services technicians, that were looking out for us during the process. 

What are the levels of energy poverty in Barrios Altos?

Energy poverty is completely conditioned by substandard housing. 80% of the visited households do not meet the basic conditions of habitability, safety, or accessibility. This situation causes many problems related to energy poverty, like social exclusion and lack of access to basic supplies such as water and energy. This leads in some cases to illegal and insecure connections. Additionally, there is a problem of energy literacy. Parts of the population doesn’t know how to contract a supply and manage their energy needs. Energy needs are covered by bonfires inside the houses or on the street. They have to cook in rooms without ventilation.

Buildings of Lorca, view from the street

Additionally, there are many building damages and humidity. As a result, we have seen that a large part of the inhabitants has respiratory diseases, due to humidity, and cardiovascular diseases, due to exposure to extreme temperatures in winter and summer. Also, we have seen many skin problems, especially in children.

When the conditions of the households are so bad, people could refuge in public spaces. But here there are not any shelters. The only open space is the primary school, that have strong energy problems, because they do not have adequate insulation, old carpentry. This public school works as a social entity because they are in charge of referring cases to the town hall, help families to access aid, feed children outside of their competences. This could be the ideal place to improve energy efficiency and install solar panels. Also is relevant to highlight that this neighbourhood have a lot of informal networks that support the habitants in many issues. Some of our recommendations go in the direction of creating synergies between these networks and the city council.

What are the most relevant recommendations that you have provided to the municipality?

The greatest utility of this technical assistance is that the council now has a map, a navigation chart of where to start addressing energy poverty and what is a priority to do. They must put an end to the situation of substandard housing and ensure access to energy for the population. They can act in three ways: carrying out an audit that contrasts with land registry data and registering heating equipment and the population that lives there. Carrying out a process of urban regeneration that includes financing and relocation figures and the third, to include within Social Services a technical figure for advice on energy rights and needs, in a more technical way than SS. Also, providing enough resources to Social Services Department is vital.

How have you faced these months the technical assistance?

It has been very intense. There are no previous case studies like this one, so we had to approach it in a trial and error manner and adapt. We are very happy to have been able to work with the Social Services. The reception has been great and I have learned a lot of things. At the level of the technical assistance, I exceeded with dedication, living with the dilemma of sticking to my work and that I can always do more. I am happy with EPAH’s initiative to finance the municipalities with expert support and not with money, and I have felt to be part of a collaborative approach.

Is there anything that could have been added?

I think it was a shame not to have been able to make a group approximation of energy poverty in Barrios Altos. It has left a void in relation to informal networks. I think the first thing is to encourage coexistence and access to citizen exchanges. Then, the migrant population needs to be included in studies like these. What we started should be done in greater depth and much more resources invested.


Publication date
13 March 2023
Directorate-General for Energy