By Scott Bittle and Jean Johnson, National Geographic Society/Public Agenda
“The truth is that our energy policy is improvised; it simply isn’t serious.”
If you’re thinking that sounds like an apt criticism of U.S. energy policy over the last few decades, you may be surprised to learn that it’s actually a quote from a Spanish policymaker bemoaning his own country’s lack of a long-term, well-thought out energy plan. And the energy problems facing Spain are something of a cautionary tale for the United States.
Spain has been a renewable energy leader, especially in wind power and has been praised by groups like the World Wildlife Fund for its progress in this area. They’re certainly ahead of the United States. Spain gets 13 percent of its electricity from wind power, compared to a little under 2 percent for the United States. In fact, despite being a fairly small country (about twice the size of Oregon), Spain is the world’s third largest wind producer. When Spain’s more than 20,000 wind turbines get going, they can generate wind power at world record levels. In the windy month of March 2009, the country got about 40 percent of its electricity from wind.
Moreover, Spain is already doing a lot of the other things that are generally thought to save energy and reduce pollution. Most major Spanish cities have good public transportation, and about 44 percent of Spaniards use public transport at least once a week. Only about 7 percent of Americans do this. Perhaps the more telling stat is relatively few Spaniards shun public transportation entirely. Only 1 in 10 never uses public transportation; that’s compared to about 6 in 10 Americans who basically “never touch the stuff.” You can also zip across the Spanish countryside using its system its system of superfast (and very comfortable) Ave trains.
Car ownership is relatively common in Spain—there are about 608 cars for every thousand residents compared to 828 per thousand in the United States. But since the price of gas is higher, the Spanish do tend to own smaller, more fuel efficient models. When gas prices here were hitting the $3.50 per gallon mark in 2008, people in Spain were paying were paying the hefty equivalent of $6.70 per gallon. For economists who argue that the best way to get people to use energy more carefully is to push up the price of gas, you have to admit that the Spanish have already been there and done that.
So what is Spain’s problem, and why are its energy experts so distressed about its energy prospects? Despite its success in developing wind power and its relatively efficient transportation sector, Spain still gets 75 percent of its energy from fossil fuels. To make things worse—and unlike the United States—the country has no sizeable supplies of domestic fossil fuels, and that means major energy importation.
In the United States, we import half of our oil, but that means we still produce the other half domestically. If you think Americans have reason to worry about imported oil, consider how a recent article in the Spanish newspaper El Pais describes the country’s situation: “With virtually no hydrocarbon resources of its own, a subsidized, uncompetitive coal industry, and a nuclear sector that is highly unpopular with the electorate, Spain, a world leader in renewables, faces a difficult energy future . . . any upset, any disaster, whether the Arab spring or Fukushima, inflates an energy bill that is already beyond the means of an economy in crisis.”
The lesson for us in looking at Spain should be two-fold. On the upside, Spain’s experience shows that wind power is a practical alternative that can supply healthy portions of a country’s energy needs. But that doesn’t mean you’re home free. Spain shows that doing all the right things may not actually be enough – or at least, the right things take a long time to take hold. Which means the United States, with its vastly larger economy and much greater energy needs, had better get started soon.