For my first blog post of the fall, I’m starting with my favorite back-to-school essay topic from when I was a kid: “what did you do on your summer vacation?”  It’s easy.  It doesn’t make you really get serious yet. And it lets you think about what you actually might have learned from the time you spent on vacation.

I had the opportunity to spend three weeks in Spain in July and August – and since this isn’t a travel blog, the question I want to talk about is, what did I see that may help account for the fact that according to the most recent data that I could find (not as recent as I would like), Spain’s annual per capita energy consumption is less than half of that in the United States?

First – their cars are smaller.  Lots smaller.  Is that because of the fact that their gasoline is more expensive?  Well, perhaps in part.  But their streets are smaller.  The streets in their old cities feel like you could touch the walls of  the buildings on both sides of the street if you stretched out your hands.  In Boston or Philadelphia, the old streets were sized so that two horse-drawn carriages could pass and ladies on the sidewalk didn’t get splashed.  In Madrid, Barcelona, Seville and Granada, the old city streets appear to have been sized for one guy pushing a cart.  People zipped through those streets in tiny little cars.  On the other hand, I watched some guy inching his mid-size Cadillac down a street in Seville, with his tires scraping on the curbs of the street as he went.  I couldn’t hear what she was saying, but his companion clearly had a running commentary going about his driving.  I can’t imagine someone wanting to do that regularly.  And Spanish parking spaces are smaller.  We rented an Audi A3 to drive through southern Spain, and we never found a public parking garage that had any spaces larger than what we call “compact” spaces in Seattle.  Most of the spaces were smaller than we require for compact spaces.  On-street parking spots tended to be smaller still.  So there are a lot of reasons why “small” is the only size car that is practical in Spain.

One of the reasons I hear why people don’t want small cars in the United States tends to be a variation on, “sometimes I just need to carry a lot of stuff.”  That appears to happen in Spain as well.  And when it does, it can be an amazing sight.  This car, getting off the ferry in Tangier, Morocco, was just the one I happened to photograph.  The most amazing examples were gone before I could get my camera out.

I have no idea how they deal with getting the kids’ soccer team to practice – which of course does not lend itself to rooftop carriers.

Sticking with transportation, Spain has invested a lot of money in high-speed trains.  We took the high-speed train from Madrid, Spain’s largest city, to Valencia, its third largest city.  They are 190 miles apart, and the trip took an hour and a half – center city to center city, no airport security, 44 Euros (about $55) one way.  Compare that to any way you ever want to get from Seattle to Portland, which is 15 miles shorter but takes 3 hours or more.  There are also subways in much smaller cities in Spain than you find in the United States, as well as good bus service.  Of course the Spanish government has spent money like they minted it, which in the Euro Zone, they clearly do not.  That spending has not just been on transportation infrastructure, but on a panoply of public projects, at least some of which are unlikely to ever pay off.  But the fact that you can get quickly from one city to another and can get around in the cities with public transit takes some of the pressure off the need for a larger car.

We also saw wind farms that seemed huge compared to any I have seen in the United States.  Making heavy use of wind energy can be a function of the good fortune of winds that are patterned to coincide with peak electrical use.  We took this picture in the south of Spain on an afternoon when the temperature topped 100º and the wind was blowing like mad.  Overnight, the winds dropped as the temperatures dropped, and the next morning not only were the windmills that were operating turning much more slowly, but most of the windmills had been turned off.  (Their blades were turned to avoid catching the wind.)  The area apparently has winds that pick up and blow regularly as temperatures rise – which would make wind power a good source to meet the peak loads of air conditioning. 

What conclusions can be drawn from those observations?  Maybe three.

First, although the cost of gasoline has an impact on the desirability of small, and thus fuel efficient, cars, other factors also matter.  It is a whole lot harder to drive and park American-sized cars in Spain, and thus they are less fun and less satisfying.  That is a function of how the United States has built its roads and its cities, and how Spain has built its roads and its cities.  There isn’t much that can be done to change that.

Second, luck helps.  Wind power works best when it is useful for meeting peak load, not supplying base load.  If you happen to have an area where the wind rises to a howl when the temperature rises, that will make wind power more useful with peak load – and make it more viable economically.

Third, public investment matters.  High-speed rail has huge up-front costs.  So do subways.   But once the investment is made, it allows quick, easy, even cheap transportation without a car.  The long-term value of that investment is hard to predict at the moment, as Spain struggles to right itself from too much public investment, as well as a housing crash as bad as the worst we experienced in the United States.  But long-term, it will reduce Spain’s energy demands while allowing people to get where they want to go with ease.