The 1970s Energy Crisis: Chaos Yesterday vs Today

The 1970s Energy Crisis: Chaos Yesterday vs Today

As we focus on the future and designing what’s next at Zpryme’s ETS17 event — whose theme, Design for Energy, explores how we can redesign the energy industry to meet the needs of next-generation communities — we also need to look back. 

The energy industry has experienced critical events and crises throughout its history that redesigned the industry and — if we’re going to shape its future — we have to understand what shaped its past. The new Zpryme series, Powerless: Events that Redesigned Energy, will explore the impacts of historic energy events through research and storytelling.

The 1970s Energy Crisis: Chaos Yesterday versus Today

Our first segment in the Powerless series explores the turbulent 1970s, and the energy crises that shaped a generation — ushering in things like energy efficiency and alternative energy resources. The Energy Crisis often brings to mind acute oil shortages in 1973 and 1979, but there were other crises in 1970s energy — from the 1977 NYC Blackout that happened 39 years ago today to Three-Mile Island in 1979.

What did the world of energy feel like in the 1970s? How do those experiences compare with today? What are the lasting impacts? Since no one at Zpryme remembers the 1970s — I missed it by 10 days! — we surveyed energy professionals who lived through it, and more than 300 generous folks shared their stories.

Most respondents focused on how the oil shortages shaped their lives, and we’ll cover that angle first in the survey results we’re sharing today and tomorrow. In the next installment of the Powerless series, Zpryme’s Mark Ishac will focus in more on the electricity crises of the 1970s.

Today, we’ll explore the chaotic feelings of the Energy Crisis from largely an oil perspective and how those feelings compare with today. Tomorrow, we’ll look at the lasting impacts of the Energy Crisis on people’s lives and careers.

The End of Energy’s “Golden Age”

In America’s crescendo to its Bicentennial Americans had worried little about their energy sources — everything seemed inexpensive and plentiful. It’s not that they hadn’t had their issues. New York and New England had experienced a large-scale blackout in 1965. But it wasn’t until 1973 when a large, nationwide energy shortage struck, that America realized how precious of a commodity energy was and how strong its impacts were on the American economy.

After World War II America experienced an economic boom for decades. Part of the growth was due to low energy costs — all forms of energy, including oil, were cheap and abundant. Domestic oil production increased by nearly 50% between 1945 and 1960, and annual oil imports rose from 74 million to 371 million barrels. Energy production was at an all-time high and while energy consumption was not highly efficient, it was of little concern.

America’s golden age of energy abruptly ended in 1973 with the OPEC embargo. When the embargo took affect the United States quickly began to feel economic crisis, realizing that America’s economy and energy consumption were closely tied. America’s relationship with energy would never be the same again.

Experiences During the Crisis

What did people experience during the Crisis? The images that remind me the most about the Energy Crisis are the photos of gas lines — funky 70s gas guzzlers queued up for a rationed commodity — but how much of that was real versus just an instance or two captured on film? We turned to our respondents for their insights.

Most people who experienced the Energy Crisis remember lines for gasoline — 75% of survey respondents personally experienced lines for gasoline. Things seemed to be more urgent in urban areas — some waited hours, others waited 15 to 20 minutes. For many, the concern wasn’t even the lines, but running out of gas and gas stations not being open. People talked about keeping spare fuel tanks, planning their gas stops on family trips, and saving gas to prepare for the impending hospital trip of a mother-to-be. A few interesting stats from our survey:

  • The longest wait as measured by time: “24 hours.”
  • The longest wait as measured by distance: “A line 2 to 3 kilometers long (no kidding!)”
  • The most dramatic wait: “During the days of gasoline lines in Dallas, my husband and I spotted a gas station with no line. We saw someone filling up his tanks, so we turned in. We quickly exited the scene because the man pulled out a shotgun and aimed it at us.”


Part of the panic was just that no one knew what was going to happen next — the American lifestyle of endless energy and freedom came to a halt. “In 1973, oil caught the world off guard,” noted one respondent. “NO ONE had any idea where it might go, so uncertainty was the big issue.”

Wait, was it a Hoax?

Even with gas lines, shotguns, and Jimmy Carter donning his now-famous beige sweater in February 1977, many Americans at the time believed the Energy Crisis to be a myth. A CBS-New York Times poll in May 1979 asked the question: “President Carter has told us that we are running out of oil and natural gas. Do you think things are as bad as the president said?” Of those who responded, only 33% agreed while 57% said no. In another poll by NBC News and the Associated Press, 54% of the voters believed the Energy Crisis to be a hoax.

That was then, but when we asked people to look back on the time, the results are different. Nearly 76% of our survey respondents believe that the Energy Crisis was real — just 11% believe it was hoax and 13% are undecided.


The Chaos in the Industry – Yesterday and Today

Whether it was real or not, people certainly experienced panic and chaos during the Energy Crisis. And today, we at Zpryme feel that industry is going through another chaotic time of transition, or what we define as uncertainty about what the future of energy looks like. But how do the two time-periods compare in regards to chaos? As they considered these questions, survey respondents wrestled with the definition of chaos…does it mean increased volatility? Does it mean more complexity? More players in the marketplace?

As one person wisely noted in regard to our question about the relative chaos of the different time periods: “This is a difficult question to answer because it is a mixed bag of industry effects. Oil/gasoline went totally haywire with the 1973 oil embargo. Today, the disruption in the electric utility industry is huge, albeit unfolding slowly.”

Overall, our survey respondents are split on the question, but leaning slightly toward less chaotic. Approximately 55% of respondents feel the energy industry is less chaotic today than during the Energy Crisis, and 45% feel there isn’t a difference or that it is more chaotic today than during the Energy Crisis. Much of the difference in opinion seems to depend how folks defined chaos.


Proponents of Less Chaos today, had comments such as these:

  • “I don’t see the ‘fear’ that was around then.”
  • “Seems like there is still a lot of volatility in the energy industry, but the threat of NOT having energy is much less.”
  • “Hardly anyone knew what to do in the 1970s; today is relatively calm and orderly.”

Those who side on the More Chaos perspective of today had this to say:

  • “The key is how one defines chaotic. I interpreted this as meaning diverse, and there are many more options and more players. It is much less straight forward.”
  • “Back then, it was simply a matter of constrained supply of one commodity: oil. Today, the entire industry — from power to gas to new technologies — is undergoing tremendous change.”
  • “The Energy Crisis created chaos in the industry and was the start of the green movement towards energy efficiency and renewables. It’s different today, but still chaotic. Now we have distributed energy resources and the continuing move away from central station power plants to many, many distributed resources — resources that are mostly on the distribution side, rather than on the transmission side.”
  • “I believe that the changes in the power system over the next 50 years will dwarf the changes in the last 50 years.”

How did the Energy Crisis Redesign Energy Today?

So it is kind of a toss-up between the chaos experienced during each time period. Today we’re seeing the complexity bring more uncertainty about the direction of the energy industry, but the 1970s Energy Crisis seemed to bring about more sheer panic.

What about the long-term impacts of the Energy Crisis beyond the panic? As one respondent noted, “The Energy Crisis was a temporary problem, and then everyone went back to business as usual.”

How did the Energy Crisis design today’s energy industry? How did it influence the careers and environmental perspectives of today’s energy professionals? Stay tuned. That’s what we’ll explore tomorrow and I found the results very interesting, but I’m not sure quite how to interpret them. I’ll need your help.

A special thanks to ace-researcher, Danny Starr, for his study of the perspectives during the Energy Crisis.

H. Christine Richards is the research director for Zpryme. You may reach her at