Solar Power in the 1970s and 1980s

Teaching Unit Elements

The 1973-74 oil shocks caused gasoline and crude oil prices to jump and raised widespread anxiety about the United States’ energy future. U.S. political leaders grew increasingly interested in alternative domestic sources of energy that would reduce dependence on foreign oil. These alternatives included oil from Prudhoe Bay in Alaska and synthetic fuels made from coal.

Environmentalists urged a different path that emphasized reducing energy consumption through energy efficiency and increasing the use of renewable energy sources, such as solar power.  The energy theorist Amory Lovins called these “soft energy paths,” in contrast to capital-intensive and centralized “hard” energy sources, such oil, coal, and nuclear power. Energy gains from solar energy and from energy efficiency, Lovins argued, would be more democratic, as well as less polluting.

After Jimmy Carter’s election in 1976, federal support for renewable energy increased in significant ways. Under the leadership of Denis Hayes, a lead organizer of Earth Day in 1970,  a new Solar Energy Research Institute in Golden, Colorado invested federal funds in solar research and diseminated information about solar energy.  To encourage technological development, Congress passed the 1978 Energy Tax Act to provide tax credits for residences with solar energy systems, including solar water heaters. 

The Carter administration took other symbolic actions to promote solar energy. In 1978, President Carter declared a national “Sun Day” to celebrate solar technologies. The Carter Administration also had 32 solar panels installed on the White House in June 1979 to heat hot water for the building. “By the end of this century,” Carter announced at the 1979 installation ceremony, “I want our nation to derive 20 percent of all energy we use from the sun.” He declared that the White House solar hot water heater could “either be a curiosity, a museum piece…or one of the greatest and most exciting adventures ever undertaken by the American people.”

During this period of technological development, solar energy was not cost competitive with existing energy sources such as fossil fuels. Many solar designs remained highly experimental, small scale, and unconventional in their design. Solar energy’s cost disadvantage was accentuated by lenient environmental laws that allowed fossil fuel users to pollute the air and water with relatively little cost. 

Ronald Reagan’s election in 1980 sharply curtailed federal investment in solar power. Reagan favored the development of domestic oil and gas, as well as nuclear power. Reagan allowed the federal solar energy tax credits to expire, and slashed federal funding for solar research and development. The White House  solar panels were unceremoniously removed from the roof and never re-installed. 

In the mid-1970s, high oil prices and fears of energy scarcity spurred experimental home construction and new efforts to use the sun’s rays to generate heat and electricity. EPA photographers documented many of these innovative solar structures. Some hewed closely to traditional building design, while others presented dramatically new forms of construction.

In 1976, physicist and environmental activist Armory B. Lovins published an article, “Energy Strategy: The Road Not Taken?” in Foreign Affairs. This excerpt from his article highlights what he termed “soft energy paths”: low-tech, environmentally safe, distributed energy forms including energy efficiency and renewable energy. How can Lovins’ article make us think about the multiplicity of environmental policy options that were under discussion in the 1970s? 

Congress declared Wednesday, May 3, 1978 to be “Sun Day,” a national day of celebration of solar energy. The Congressional resolution expressed optimism about solar’s potential and emphasized government’s role in developing the new technology.

In Atlanta, the Sun Day celebration included a rally in a downtown park, public displays of solar technologies, street theater and dance performances, and speeches on the “Dawning of the Solar Age.”

President Jimmy Carter spoke on June 20, 1979, at the dedication ceremony for the 32 solar panels he had installed on the roof of the White House. The installation of the solar panels reflected the energy goal of his administration to achieve 20% renewable energy by 2000. How does Carter’s speech link solar power with a narrative of American technological prowess and innovation? 

Graetz, Michael J. The End of Energy: The Unmaking of America’s Environment, Security, and Independence. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
Lifset, Robert, ed. American Energy Policy in the 1970s. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 2014.
Lovins, Amory B. Soft Energy Paths: Toward a Durable Peace. San Francisco: Friends of the Earth International, 1977.
Morse, Frederick H., “The Contraction and Redirection years: 1981-1988”, in Donald A. Beattie, (ed.), History and Overview of Solar Heat Technologies (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 1997)

Strum, Harvey, and Fred Strum. “American Solar Energy Policy, 1952-1982.” Environmental Review: ER 7, no. 2 (Summer 1983): 135–54.

Strum, Harvey. “Eisenhower’s Solar Energy Policy.” The Public Historian 6, no. 2 (Spring 1984): 37–50.