America’s energy crisis: Learning lessons from the 1970s

Photo: Crisis

In 1970s, policymakers were planning their own big energy transition, from fossil fuels to nuclear

By John Kemp, Reuters

The biggest mistake analysts and decision-makers routinely make is to assume we are smarter than people were in the past or, and this amounts to the same thing, that the problems and choices we face are unique and more difficult than those faced by previous generations. But we aren’t smarter. And our problems are no harder and no easier to solve than theirs were for them.

In fact, many of the problems are the same. But if we don’t make time to learn lessons from their experience, we are doomed to discover the same problems and the same solutions over again from scratch.

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By reading history, we can develop a better sense of perspective about our own problems and choices.

In the energy field, the same issues and choices tend to recur every few decades. By understanding how previous generations tried to think about them and the choices they faced we can better understand our own.

I’ve spent much of the last week reading about America’s “energy crisis” of the 1970s which involved fears about looming shortages of all forms of coal, natural gas and electricity as well as oil, as well as concerns about the environmental impact of energy-related pollution.

Policymakers became increasingly concerned about the failure of energy supplies to keep pace with demand in the late 1960s.

By 1970, they were routinely referring to an “energy crisis” — long before the Arab oil exporters imposed an embargo on oil shipments to the United States in 1973.

We have just lived through our own “energy crisis” with all the drama about peaking oil and gas supplies in 2004-2008.

Although the United States has now moved from an era of scarcity to one of abundance we are still grappling with the question of the environmental impact of energy production.

In the 1970s, policymakers were planning their own big energy transition. In their case, from depleting fossil fuels to nuclear power.

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Now we are planning a transition from fossil fuels to wind, solar, nuclear (still) and other forms of clean energy. Just like them, we are concerned about how to reduce energy consumption and pollution by using energy more efficiently.

Thanks to the internet we can now understand the energy crisis of the 1970s as contemporaries understood their energy crisis at the time and think about how the lessons might apply to our own era. Because their energy crisis was a long time ago, we can analyse it dispassionately. But we have one huge advantage over readers in the 1970s because we know how their energy crisis turned out.

The articles below are all great reads, packed with insight and have direct applications to the modern energy era. The first three are all short articles, the last two longer more detailed research reports.

I’ve learned a lot from reading them. So I am sharing them in the hope you will too.

Outlook for energy in the United States”, Emerson, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1971)

Energy policy-making”, White, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1971)

Toward a policy of energy conservation”, Freeman, Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists (1971)

The Economy, Energy and the Environment”, a background report by the Legislative Reference Service of the Library of Congress for the Joint Economic Committee of the US Congress (1970)

Review and comparison of selected United States Energy Forecasts”, Office of Science and Technology, Executive Office of the President (1969)

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