The first August, we’d just gotten here.
Besides, for most of that month, we were sealed inside an air-conditioned building taking Spanish classes and the mandate that commercial spaces keep their thermostats at 27º (80.6º Fahrenheit) was still three years in the future.
The second August, we were in the U.S. visiting family. Covid meant my mother sat inside her house, in a chair next to a window that opened onto her back deck. Where I sat, conscientiously masked and six feet away, completely unmindful of the way cooled air poured out the window. If anything proves how much better life is now that we have Covid vaccines, it’s things like this. In August 2020, we had other things on our minds besides the heat.
Last August, our third in Spain — well, apparently, on the morning of August 4, 2021, there was a bite to the air, but I don’t remember a thing about it. Or about the rest of the month.
This August? Though we’re only a third of the way through it, it has brought us to our knees.
For one thing, travel being (almost) back to normal, everyone we know has flown the coop like the swifts that disappeared from the Madrid sky weeks ago. For another, August’s heat started in July this year. Or was it in June?
But the main difference between this August and previous ones is the way that, due to the war in Ukraine, Europe is focused on energy consumption.
I came to environmental consciousness during Jimmy Carter’s presidency. All my life I’ve felt proud of myself because I kept thermostats locked on 78º in summer and 68º (65º at night) in winter. I had no idea that the ways I thought about the energy I consumed — how I set thermostats, what I cooked, how I used a car — might be socially-created constructs instead of cut-and-dried absolutes.
I never noticed how many “summer recipes” on U.S. cooking websites require using the oven until I lived somewhere where it has been uncomfortable to turn on that particular appliance since May. It never occurred to me that central air-conditioning cools everything, including bathrooms and closets. Here, we only cool the room we’re in and turn off the air off completely when we leave the house. It costs the least to wash clothes between midnight and 8 a.m., and last week I shocked M by leaping out of bed and starting a load of laundry at 6:20 in the morning.
Because Russian gas supplies to Europe could be cut this winter, we’re being asked to cut energy consumption now. El País is beating this drum particularly loudly. One of yesterday’s headlines? “Usar el aire acondicionado por debajo de 24 grados es malo para la salud y el bolsillo” (using the air conditioner below 24 degrees is bad for your health and your pocketbook). The accompanying article, complete with diagrams, charts and mathmatical equations, shored up the idea that 26-27º (78.8-80.6) is the optimal thermostat temperature.
24 degrees is 75.2 Farenheit — which ought to be low enough for any of us, but find me a doctor in the U.S. willing to go on record saying you should never turn your thermostat below that (El País quotes one as saying, “.…el aire acondicionado por debajo de los 24 grados es ‘bastante nocivo’ para la salud” i.e., “air conditioning below 75 is quite harmful to health.”)
Carrier’s American website, on the other hand, which is the very first hit when I google optimal air-conditioning temperature?
“Determining the right answer for you will require some experimentation with different settings. It will also require determining whether you are more interested in achieving lower electricity bills, higher comfort levels or a balance of both. Other factors that can affect the best temperature for AC in your home include the number of people, amount of physical activity, and exterior factors like humidity, amount of direct sunlight, number of windows, and more. Ultimately, the best AC setting for your home is the one that makes you and your family comfortable with utility costs you can afford.”
Is this freedom or hedging?
You be the judge.
None of this is to say Spain’s new energy savings plan is without detractors. El País quoted someone who said that if it were 80 degrees in Corte Ingles, Spain’s flagship department store, it would smell bad and no one would go in. The Partido Popular (situated between the center-right and the right) protests that requiring businesses to turn off their window display lights when they close at 10 p.m. will cause more crime.
El País’s reponse?
“Tienda para ricos encendida, pequeño comercio apagado, así es la ruta por Madrid a partir de las diez de la noche.” (“Store for the wealthy lit up, small businesses off, this is the route through Madrid after ten at night.”
“Según desciende la renta per cápita, la luminosidad de los escaparates decae.”
As per capita income falls, the brightness of shop windows declines.
Note: halfway through writing this, I turned on the air-conditioner.