The Industrial Spain We Do Not Yet Know

Pedro Fresco

6 mins - 21 de Junio de 2023, 05:31

The story goes that on one of the trips former President Aznar made to the US to see George W. Bush, one of Bush’s advisors, while talking to the Spanish President as his boss was arriving, asked him: “What is Spain’s main export?”. Aznar replied, “cars”. The adviser found the answer strange, and as Aznar did not yet speak English very well, he assumed that he had not understood the question, so he repeated it. For the second time, Aznar answered “cars”. The advisor would ask him a third time when he found the answer implausible, with the same response: “cars, cars!”.

This advisor to the former American president probably thought that Spain’s primary export should be ham, olive oil, or some other agri-food product. But Aznar was right, it was cars, and 20 years later, this remains true. In fact, Spain’s second main export is refined petroleum, followed by pharmaceuticals and various types of machinery. The first agri-food product does not appear until eighth place. 

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That an advisor to a US president did not know this is rather surprising, but let us be honest, how many Spaniards think the same as this advisor and believe that we mainly export food products and not high value-added goods? I would venture to say the majority. We Spaniards do not have an exceedingly high opinion of ourselves and our country, and we have age-old complexes about our backward development, our picaresque nature, or our collective poor performance. But these are false. The Spanish economy, despite the processes of deindustrialisation common to the West in recent decades, has some of the most important companies and sectors in the world.

Among these activities and sectors are many related to energy transition technologies, those that are set to replace the entire structure of energy production and mobility. Spain, for example, is a net exporter of wind power technology, the fifth largest in the world, which is highly relevant in a country that is also the fifth largest in the world in terms of installed capacity. Within these exports, offshore wind technology stands out especially. In ports such as Ferrol and Cadiz, the structures required for offshore wind are manufactured and exported to other European countries once they have been built.

Although it does not yet manufacture panels, the solar sector is also very important in Spain. We have one of the most powerful companies in the world in the manufacture of solar inverters, Power Electronics, the fourth largest company in the world, which also manufactures electric vehicle chargers and different technologies related to power electronics. The Basque company Ingeteam is also among the world’s leading inverter companies. In terms of solar tracker manufacturing, we have three very powerful companies: PV Hardware, Soltec, and STI Nordland – all in the Top 10 of world manufacturers.

Spain’s great power in the manufacturing of combustion vehicles can also be key to the manufacture of electric vehicles. In fact, these vehicles are already manufactured in Spanish factories. The Stellanis Group manufactures 16 different plug-in models at its facilities in Vigo, Zaragoza, and Madrid, including the Citroën e-C4, the Opel Corsa-e, the Peugeot e-2008, and the electric Citroën Berlingo. The arrival of Volkswagen’s giant battery factory in Sagunto will also anchor the production of electric vehicles in the company’s factories, with at least four electric models to be manufactured in the coming years. In a similar situation is Ford, which will manufacture several electric models in Almussafes in the coming years – to be determined. And as far as is known, there is interest on the part of some companies in establishing more gigafactories in some areas of Spain.

Not only electric cars are manufactured in Spain. Recently, the Galician bodywork company Castrosua has begun to manufacture electric buses for the Spanish market for the Chinese brand BYD, the most important in the world at the moment. The Basque brand Irizar has also been manufacturing electric buses in Spain for years. Another Basque company, CAF, does the same, although it manufactures electric buses in Poland, since in Spain it specialises in the manufacture of trains and trams. The railway industry in Spain is powerful, with other major manufacturers such as Alstom and Stadler, and has quadrupled its exports in the last 15 years, exceeding €17 billion. Although of lesser economic importance, it is worth noting that Spain also has the leading European manufacturer of electric motorbikes, the Catalan company Silence. 

20% of the world’s green hydrogen projects are in Spain – the country with the most developments – second only to the USA. It is a field where the country can be a pioneer, but in order to take advantage of this grand opportunity, it would be necessary to bring the manufacturing capabilities of electrolysers here. Unlike other technologies, Europe has not lagged behind China in the race for electrolysers. Right now, in our country, there is only one small company in Segovia that manufactures them; but, fortunately, there are several projects underway, such as that of the US multinational Cummins in Guadalajara.

Let us make no mistake, we are not an agricultural country or a country dedicated to the manufacture of low value-added products. We are a country with very important industrial companies and factories in our territory, a country that trains world-renowned engineers, with good infrastructures and a large number of universities. In Spain, the weight of the industrial sector has been reduced in recent decades (something common in the West), but we are at the dawn of a new era where a relocation of industry to domestic territory will be one of the essential characteristics.

Spain has everything it needs to be one of the countries that will benefit most from this new period. In addition to all of the above, it has security of energy supply, an enviable strategic geopolitical advantage, and, above all, the capacity to generate renewable energy at the lowest costs in Europe. History has not given us an opportunity like this for generations. Let us be optimistic, let us trust in our capabilities, and let us shed our prejudices and atavistic complexes. We can do it.

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