How the 1970s Energy Crisis Drove Innovation

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The Arab oil embargo of 1973 put the United States economy on the back foot, causing fuel shortages, a quadrupling of oil prices, and long lines at gas stations. Several legacies of the resulting energy crisis have persisted decades later.

The spark of the embargo was the Yom Kippur War in October 1973, when a coalition of Arab states led by Egypt and Syria launched a surprise attack on Israel on the holiest day on the Jewish calendar. In that war, the Soviet Union resupplied its allies Egypt and Syria, and the United States responded with a massive airlift of supplies to aid Israel.

Members of the Organization of Arab Petroleum Exporting Countries (OAPEC) retaliated with an oil embargo against the United States and the Netherlands, Israel’s main supporters at the time. The resulting shock to the U.S. economy proved to be a vexing problem for American consumers and a string of U.S. presidents, who struggled to adapt. But it also led to important changes in energy efficiency, policymaking and building designs.

WATCH VIDEO: Early Demonstration of Solar Power

Department of Energy Is Created

In an April 1977 speech, new President Jimmy Carter proposed the creation of the Department of Energy, one of several policy changes he announced aimed at dealing with the challenge of a vastly changed energy landscape.

“The energy crisis has not yet overwhelmed us, but it will if we do not act quickly,” the Democratic president said in an address to the nation “… Both consumers and producers need policies they can count on so they can plan ahead. This is one reason I am working with the Congress to create a new Department of Energy, to replace more than 50 different agencies that now have some control over energy.”

Later that year, Carter signed into law the Department of Energy Organization Act of 1977. The new agency put federal energy programs under one roof, and “provided the framework for a comprehensive and balanced national energy plan,” as the department noted in an online history. 

The Energy Department put the U.S. government in a better position to coordinate federal policy in the face of the energy crisis. The department is also home to the Office of Nuclear Energy.

Tech Advances for Energy-Saving Windows

In the 1970s, the Energy Department funded research to create low-emissivity window coatings, which are now found on many clear glass buildings. The “low-E” coatings were a direct response to the energy crisis.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a Department of Energy Office of Science national laboratory managed by the University of California, collaborated with the window industry to come up with energy-efficient windows. The new coatings proved effective in preventing indoor temperatures from overheating in the summer and holding heat in during the winter. 

More than half of window sales in the commercial market and 80 percent of sales in the residential market incorporate low-E coatings, according to the Energy Department, which says the technology can reduce energy use by as much as 40 percent.

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A physicist named Steve Selkowitz was instrumental in making this happen.

“The concept and some of the materials and patents were already out there,” Selkowitz said. “But the theory had to be turned into practice—moving from a good idea to viable products and production processes that could be deployed at scale to save large amounts of energy at affordable costs.”

According to the National Academy of Sciences, the switch to low-E windows has saved consumers billions of dollars.

There have been a host of other improvements in technology for everyday use, such as advances in energy-efficient lamps and light bulbs.

Lowered Thermostats, White House Solar Panels

President Jimmy Carter speaking in front of solar panels placed on the West Wing Roof of the White House, announcing his solar energy policy on June 20, 1979.

The energy crisis also forced U.S. presidents to make energy efficiency and conservation national priorities. Just two months after taking office, President Gerald Ford gave a speech to Congress on October 8, 1974, laying out his plan to curb inflation, which he dubbed Whip Inflation Now, or WIN. His message included urging Americans to conserve energy.

“To help save scarce fuel in the energy crisis, drive less, heat less,” said Ford.

In a 1977 fireside chat, Carter sported a cardigan sweater and urged people to keep their thermostats at 65 during the day and 55 at night to help ease a winter natural gas shortage.

In his April 1977 speech, Carter warned of a possible “national catastrophe” unless Americans were willing to make sacrifices that entailed curtailing energy consumption.

“With the exception of preventing war, this is the greatest challenge that our country will face during our lifetimes,” said Carter.

Carter also took symbolic steps like installing solar panels on the top of the West Wing of the White House in 1979. Many experts agree that Carter was ahead of his time in his focus on renewable and clean energy.

“A generation from now,” Carter said, “this solar heater can either be a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not taken, or it can be a small part of one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people— harnessing the power of the sun to enrich our lives as we move away from our crippling dependence on foreign oil.”

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