How the 1970s Energy Crisis Drove Innovation

The 1973 Arab oil embargo knocked the United States’ economy on its toes, 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 for 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 of the Jewish calendar. During this 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 US economy has proven to be a thorny issue for US consumers and a string of US presidents, who have struggled to adjust. But it has also led to significant changes in energy efficiency, policy making and building design.

WATCH VIDEO: First demonstration of solar energy

The Ministry 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 meeting the challenge of a dramatically changed energy landscape.

“The energy crisis hasn’t overwhelmed us yet, but it will if we don’t act quickly,” the Democratic president said in an address to the nation “…Consumers and producers need policies on which they can count so they can plan ahead. That’s one of the reasons I’m working with 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 brought 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 post. the story.

The Department of Energy has placed the US 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.

Technological advances for energy-saving windows

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

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab, a national laboratory of the Department of Energy Office of Science operated by the University of California, has worked with the window industry to come up with energy-efficient windows. The new coatings have proven effective in preventing interior temperatures from overheating in the summer and retaining heat in the winter.

More than half of window sales in the commercial market and 80% of sales in the residential market incorporate low-e coatings, according to the Department of Energy, which says the technology can reduce energy consumption by up to at 40%.

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A physicist named Steve Selkowitz helped make this possible.

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

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

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

Lowered thermostats, White House solar panels

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

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

The energy crisis has also forced US presidents to make energy efficiency and conservation national priorities. Just two months after taking office, President Gerald Ford delivered an address to Congress on October 8, 1974, outlining his plan to fight inflation, which he dubbed Whip Inflation Now, or WIN. His message included urging Americans to save energy.

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

During a fireside chat in December 1977, Carter wore a cardigan and urged people to keep their thermostats at 65 during the day and 55 at night to help alleviate a winter shortage of natural gas.

In his April 1977 speech, Carter warned of possible “national catastrophe” unless Americans were willing to make sacrifices that involved reducing energy use.

“With the exception of war prevention, this is the greatest challenge our country will face in our lifetime,” Carter said.

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

“In a generation,” Carter said, “this solar water heater may be either a curiosity, a museum piece, an example of a road not traveled, or a small part of one of the largest and most exciting adventures never before 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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