The Simple Technologies the Spanish Use to Save Energy

In Iberia's biggest cities, the motion sensor is helping to keep businesses green without much cost or ado

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After two stints living in Seville, during the autumn of 2001 and the spring of 2005, I've long known from firsthand experience that Spain is a poorer country than ours, and that its residents pay a lot closer attention to energy costs -- that laundry is hung on lines when possible even in houses with electric dryers, for example, and that in Cafe de Indias, a chain coffee shop comparable to Starbucks, employees used to give you dirty looks if you tried to plug in your laptop.

But on my most recent visit to the country, a three week trip that took me to Cordoba, Seville, San Sebastian, Barcelona, Valencia, and Ibiza, I was struck and impressed by several inexpensive technological fixes that have made the country greener in ways that impose practically negligible costs.

In the vast majority of tapas bars and restaurants I patronized, and in train stations and other public places too, I'd open bathroom doors to find it dark inside, start to fumble for a light switch, and remember that practically every last light is now triggered by motion sensors, a cheap alternative to the status quo here: leaving the lights on all the time, whether anyone is in the bathroom or not.

The motion sensor was also put to use in at least one shopping mall that I visited in Valencia. With four or five stories of stores, it had a bunch of escalators to transport shoppers from one level to another. Instead of running them at full speed all the time, however, they slowed down considerably when no one was on the steps. Tripping an invisible beam while walking onto the bottom step, it sped up immediately to normal escalator speed, costing patrons no time and saving energy.

The last noteworthy idea: inside hotel rooms, turning on the lights required sticking the hotel key card into a small slot in the wall, so that upon leaving the room, one couldn't leave the lights or air-conditioning on, something that a lot of travelers do out of inattentiveness or laziness. This did impose an occasional, small inconvenience: for example, I couldn't recharge the battery on my camera while out, because the wall outlets shut off too when I removed the key.

On the whole, though, I hardly noticed the change once I got used to it, and the small inconvenience was mitigated by the fact that I never misplaced the key while in the room, something I often do on a normal stint at a hotel.

There have been much bigger, more extensive efforts to green Spain since the last time I visited. The infrastructure of bike paths in cities has been tremendously improved, and city bike programs were offered everyplace I visited save Ibiza. The nation's network of high speed trains has been expanded, and is more impressive than anything we have in the United States. And gas taxes are high. But whatever one thinks of bringing those policies to the United States, there's low-hanging fruit to pluck in the meantime. What could anyone have against the lowly motion sensor?

Yet it's seldom used here.

Why?


Image credit: Paolo Tonon
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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