Spain (and probably most of Europe) is way ahead of us in terms of energy conservation. Flying into Barcelona, we were struck by how many wind farms there were in the mountains as well as in the desert area south and west of the city. As we rode the bus from Barcelona to Bilbao, we also saw a bunch of solar panel arrays, perfect for that desert area. But the thing that struck me most was how many of the activities that require energy use were designed only to work if someone needed them to.
For example, we used public transportation a lot. In the subway systems as well as on the trains, the doors to each car had buttons on both the inside and the outside. If no one presses the button, the door doesn’t open. Another example is that the escalators slow down and eventually stop if no one is on them. As soon as a passenger steps on, the escalator starts moving at the normal speed. A final example is that in the hotel rooms, the lights will not go on unless the inhabitant has put the key to the room in a special slot by the door. When the inhabitant leaves the room, she takes her key and the lights go out. The only way to leave the lights on when you aren’t in the room is to leave your key in the room. Each of these examples is small but I bet they all add up in terms of energy savings. It makes me wonder why we aren’t doing this kind of stuff more in the US.
I think part of the reason that we don’t do more of this kind of conservation is cultural expectations. Many things in Spain, including things that have nothing to do with technology, do not happen without an explicit request. The most interesting of these (interesting mostly because it was the one that we never got used to) involves getting the check when you eat at a restaurant. In the US, when the waiter comes to pick up the dishes and asks, “Would you like anything else?”, we expect that when we say “No” the waiter will bring the check. In Spain, that doesn’t happen. Saying that you don’t want anything else is not the same as asking for the check. You always have to explicitly ask. I think it’s probably because they don’t want to be rude and try to rush you out of the restaurant in case you want to sit and chat. As I said, we never got used to this and often found ourselves sitting at our table for an extra 15 or 20 minutes trying to get the waiter’s attention so that we could put in our explicit request for the check.
So perhaps there needs to be a cultural shift in the United States in order for us to do the kind of energy conservation that we saw everywhere in Spain. But I think it would be worth the effort.