Santander Energy Efficiency: What a Small Spanish City Can Teach the U.S. About Conservation

Santander is a small Spanish city with little interaction with the foreign world. But three years ago, Santander got some big news from some outside investors: The city's 180,000 residents received a $11 million grant from the European Commission to become one of Europe's first "smart cities." The port city was an ideal first candidate because of its size and also because of Spain's desire to cut costs while still retaining services for its citizens. 

 

According to NPR, most of the improvements are invisible, with "12,000 sensors buried under the asphalt, affixed to street lamps and atop city buses. The sensors measure everything from air pollution to where there are free parking spaces. They can even tell garbage collectors which dumpsters are full, and automatically dim street lights when no one is around." The city has saved 25% on its electricity bills and 20% on garbage. The utility companies are so enthusiastic about the savings that they agreed to foot the bill for the sensor's upkeep. 

But the technology takes on a democratic element of participation as well. Residents can upload pictures of broken street lamps straight to City Hall and give real-time updates on traffic and parking. This new cooperation allows many more citizens to interact with government and voice their concerns with the government. The mayor of Santander said the applications have made the turnover rate for fixing community problems like potholes decrease from three weeks to around five days. "People have already sent us about 400 different ideas ... So the citizen is like sitting with us, telling, 'I want to work to make this city better. I don't want only to complain,'" said Mayor de la Serna. 

While Europe seeks new methods to become more energy efficient, the United States is struggling bit-by-bit to do the same. Obama had high hopes for the potential of a smart grid and smart monitors, but they are taking longer than planned. His ideas were to improve the outdated system currently in place and introduce the internet to electrical capabilities, allowing citizens to have the power to control our heating from our smartphones. When he first took office, he proposed $100 billion to make all the necessary changes as part of the stimulus package. In 2009 he settled, instead, for $11 billion in "seed money," a decision that created a "sense of frustration," recalls former budget director Peter Orszag. The money then got caught up in bureaucratic and administrative backlash, not going nearly as far as hoped. 

But there have been some improvements. Utilities updates have increased from once every two seconds to 30 times per second. Automated substations, synchrophasors, and other "unsexy" stimulus investments are solving problems before we notice them. “People don’t see it, but it’s happening,” says Peter Fox-Penner of the Brattle Group. "Nobody notices infrastructure investments when they work, but that’s the point of infrastructure — and power." Time will tell if big business, small business, citizens, and government can come together to generate more progress.

For more information about how smart grid technologies in the United States, check out NOVA's interesting video with Neil deGrasse Tyson