The 1977 White House climate memo that should have changed the world
June 18, 2022 2:49 AM   Subscribe

“We must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century” In 1977 Star Wars hit movie theaters, New York City had a blackout that lasted 25 hours, and the Apple II personal computer went up for sale. It was also the year that a remarkable one-page memo was circulated at the very highest levels of US government.
posted by mumimor (21 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite
 
Nothing that the US govt shouldn't have known about for decades. Shortly afterwards the US electorate roundly rejected the very concept that they may not be the masters of the universe.
posted by pompomtom at 3:33 AM on June 18 [9 favorites]


The solar panels on the White House were for warming water, not making electricity. Only NASA could justify the cost of solar panels to make electricity at the time. Still, Ronald Ray Gun spitefully had them taken down. Any farmer could see that solar water heating was a good idea.
posted by Bee'sWing at 3:42 AM on June 18 [24 favorites]


“We must start now to develop the new, unconventional sources of energy we will rely on in the next century,”
Or, you know, we could ignore it for fifty years and hope it gets better somehow.
posted by ricochet biscuit at 4:50 AM on June 18 [8 favorites]


1934 US Weather Bureau detects warming trend in its records since 1865.
1963 Rise in CO2 levels prompt first scientific conference on the topic -- it warns of melting glaciers and sea level rise.
1965 Report to LBJ predicts 25% increase in CO2 by Y2K. The actual increase from 1965 to today is 30%.
posted by CheeseDigestsAll at 5:37 AM on June 18 [31 favorites]


I working on developing a course in Climate Change Biology, and this memo is going on the reading list!

My family installed a solar hot water system a few years after that, and it worked really well for years. It's hard to imagine what the world might be like if we had listened to the Carter administration.
posted by hydropsyche at 6:38 AM on June 18 [10 favorites]



Sarah Kendzior
on Twitter:
This country will forgive people for a lot of things.
They'll forgive you for being a bigot.
They'll forgive you for being a liar.
They'll forgive you for being a thief.

But they will never forgive you for being right too early.
posted by Pronoiac at 6:48 AM on June 18 [49 favorites]


I was an actual child in a Southern backwater in the '80s, and even I had heard that we had to do something about this "global warming." I'm pretty sure they mentioned it in the Weekly Reader. But that was when the fiction that grown, responsible people ran the world was much stronger. Kids these days have a lot of disadvantages, but at least that's not something they have to unlearn.
posted by Countess Elena at 7:05 AM on June 18 [9 favorites]



Or, you know, we could ignore it for fifty years and hope it gets better somehow.

December 1970 -- this was the cover of National Geographic.

I was eleven years old at the time. Past that point, I've never had the luxury of ignorance.

Nor to my mind has anybody with half a brain, two eyes and a sense of smell. We are where we are because industrialized "progress" in the name of shareholder profit is a helluva drug, damned hard to kick.

See also Buckminster Fuller's Earthians Critical Moment:

We are now entered into Earthians’ most critical moment, that of immi nent, technically feasible economic success for all humanity. This, how ever, is frustrated‐ by the large and prosperous minority's fearful procras tination at the entrance into the un known, epochal changes, obviously essential to realization of com prehensive human success and total planetary freedoms and enjoyment.

(also published December 1970 -- funny that)
posted by philip-random at 8:03 AM on June 18 [6 favorites]


The basic science of climate change was established in the 1800s - one might question why it took as long as 1965 before the issue hit a presidents desk.
posted by piyushnz at 8:06 AM on June 18 [7 favorites]


Bee’sWing, that’s really interesting to know, about the solar panels on the Carter White House!

I remember hearing a podcast on the history of solar energy - maybe even a 99% Invisible, which I usually like - begun with a couple of hosts frankly belittling the idea of black tubes on the roof heating water. They seemed to think it was antiquated and even a little backward to use a technology that Could Produce Electricity to *just* heat hot water. I was gobsmacked - how much energy is spent (in burning natural gas, as well as electricity) just in a single hour in the US to heat water for showers and hand washing? I can definitely see that parabolic cookers for boiling potable water might be less relevant in the US, but it made me wonder if rooftop systems for solar hot water are part of contemporary plans for clean energy.
posted by rrrrrrrrrt at 10:25 AM on June 18 [1 favorite]


They seemed to think it was antiquated and even a little backward to use a technology that Could Produce Electricity to *just* heat hot water.

Remembering that most of our most advanced power plants using much high-technology are just heating water to run steam turbines.
posted by Clever User Name at 11:46 AM on June 18 [9 favorites]


how much energy is spent (in burning natural gas, as well as electricity) just in a single hour in the US to heat water for showers and hand washing?

Not got the breakdown for different heating jobs, but in most EU countries heating typically is in the 45-50% of total energy use, and accounts for around a third of climate change emissions.
posted by biffa at 11:58 AM on June 18 [2 favorites]


Solar water heaters and outdoor clotheslines remain extremely cost effective solutions for reducing CO2 and energy use in terms of residential power consumption
posted by interogative mood at 12:17 PM on June 18 [3 favorites]


I remember hearing a podcast on the history of solar energy - maybe even a 99% Invisible, which I usually like - begun with a couple of hosts frankly belittling the idea of black tubes on the roof heating water.

I live in the desert southwest (where, for now, we still have water available to heat…) and we sometimes forget to turn the hose spigot off, with just the spray nozzle at the end shut off. Which means that the hose stays full of water, and then when we go to use it, we have to run the water to let the water in the hose run because it is way too hot to touch. It doesn’t take long. Ten minutes in the sun will have that entire thing very hot. Black tubes on the roof can heat water in the sun very very well. (As for running the water so the hose cools down, we spray it high in the air so that it lands on the tree. Tree gets water, and the water cools some in the air. So it works out.) We have regretted for years that the powers that be decided not to aggressively pursue solar research, because we get 350+ days of sun a year and we should have been harnessing this decades ago.
posted by azpenguin at 7:34 PM on June 18 [6 favorites]


it made me wonder if rooftop systems for solar hot water are part of contemporary plans for clean energy.

I have had an evacuated-tube solar thermal collector on my roof for the last twenty years.

Imagine a test tube. Now make it two metres long and 65mm in diameter. Now insert a second slightly smaller test tube down the middle of it. Seal the two tubes together at their lips, so that the second tube is suspended inside the first one but doesn't touch it anywhere except where they're sealed together. Suck all the air out of the space between the tubes to create a high vacuum in there, so you've effectively made a long thin thermos flask. Treat the inside of the inner tube with a selective coating that transmits light from the glass through the coating but reflects any light that tries to go back through the coating and into the glass again, so the innermost tube looks black when you look at it from the outside.

Now run a heat pipe down the middle of the inner tube, stood off from the walls by light-absorbing metal fins. The heat pipe works just like the ones that move heat from your laptop's CPU to its cooling fins: it's just a length of copper tube, sealed at both ends, with a little bit of water inside and all the air sucked out so that the only gas in there is water vapour.

The low internal pressure drops the water's boiling point way below the 100°C that water boils at under one atmosphere of air pressure. It doesn't take it all the way down to the 15°C that water would boil at in a hard vacuum, because there is always some water vapour in there, but if you cool one end of the tube so that water vapour condenses out at that point, any liquid water sticking to the inner surface of the tube is pretty much guaranteed to boil if the tube is anywhere from maybe 30°C on up.

Liquid water changing phase to vapour removes heat from the surface it's boiling off, and when that vapour arrives at the cooled end (which it will do, because the vapour condensing back to liquid there creates a pressure gradient that drives gas flow inside the tube) it carries that heat with it, dumping it all into the cooled spot as it condenses back to water and trickles back down the tube to get boiled off again. The temperature in the condensation zone is what ends up setting the vapour pressure inside the tube, such that the boiling point of the water inside a heat pipe ends up very close to whatever temperature the coolest end of the heat pipe is at.

The net effect is very rapid delivery of all the heat energy applied anywhere along the length of a heat pipe to its coolest point over quite a wide range of temperatures.

Now hang twenty of those sealed heat pipe and vacuum tube assemblies below a copper header that has water from the hot water storage tank gently circulated through it with a little paddle pump, with the top ends of the heat pipes in good thermal contact with the header and the vacuum tubes exposed to the sun. The outside air temperature is now almost completely irrelevant, because the vacuum between the two layers of glass means there's negligible heat loss from the inner absorber fin by convection or conduction, and the selective coating means there's negligible heat loss via radiation. Basically any solar radiation that penetrates through the selective coating ends up heating the absorber fin, then the heat pipe, then warming the circulating water.

The vacuum tubes are circular in cross section and spaced far enough apart not to shade each other for quite a wide range of incident sunlight angles, so the array starts collecting as much heat as it's capable of earlier in the morning and later into the afternoon than a flat plate collector would do. If the circulating pump ever stops for some reason, it's completely feasible for these collectors to boil the water in the header even on a super cold winter's day if it's at all sunny, and they'll still warm it up a fair bit even if the day's a bit overcast.

I had this thing installed on my rooftop back when solar PV panels were still quite expensive, and it's easily paid for itself in displaced electricity for heating my hot water.

If I were to design a system to heat water with the sun in 2022, though, I'd do it with solar PV panels driving a heat-pump hot water service. Solar panels are only about 20% efficient, but a decent heat pump will put about 400% of the electrical energy you supply it with into the water tank as heat, so the net heating effect is about the same as you'd get from an 80% efficient flat-plate direct solar thermal heater occupying the same roof area as the PV panels.

PV panels and heat pump hot water services have both come down in price enough that the total cost of such an installation would be quite similar to what I paid for my existing resistance-heated electric hot water service and its solar thermal collector - but it would work even better. When the sun delivers more energy in a day than the hot water tank needs, the excess can automatically be routed out to the grid and sold; and on days when the sun doesn't provide quite enough energy to heat a tankful completely, the heat pump will need only about a quarter of what my present resistance-heated boost element does to top it up overnight.

Solar thermal is elegantly simple, but the extreme flexibility of electricity and the relentlessly lowering price of solar PV has rendered it pretty much obsolete.
posted by flabdablet at 7:04 AM on June 19 [12 favorites]


but a decent heat pump will put about 400% of the electrical energy you supply it with into the water tank as heat

Technology Connections has been explaining the miraculous efficiency of heat pumps recently.
posted by Bee'sWing at 7:55 AM on June 19 [2 favorites]


rounding to the nearest decade, we have had:
scientific understanding of global warming 160yrs
industrial and political understanding of global warming 60 yrs
hydro &, wind electric generators 100 yrs
electric transport 90 yrs
Silicon based solar eletric panels 70 years
mass movements for the environment and political majorities in democracies supporting environment 60 years

we have doubled the intensity of climate pollution in the past 30 years.

if your proposals are limited to things discussable in polite company, you are the next fossils.

If there is no crop harvest, there is no economy, no society no one to actively contain the chemical and radiological and biological timebombs we used to assure the destruction of our enemies.

Industrial civilization is a murder suicide pact.
No where to run, no where to hide. Do more than vote and retweet.
posted by anecdotal_grand_theory at 4:34 PM on June 19 [3 favorites]


You can move the dates for some of those even further back:

First hydroelectric generator 1878
First electric wind turbine 1888
First electric train 1837
First electric car 1881
First electric boat 1881
posted by fimbulvetr at 4:52 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


But they will never forgive you for being right too early.

Kind of like how having been anti-Hitler before the US declared war on Germany was something that could get you on the HUAC blacklist.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 7:55 PM on June 19 [1 favorite]


it seems possible that if Carter had been re-elected, the world might have been in a better position regarding climate impacts today

Jimmy Carter was constantly at war with the fossil fuel industry. As a result, they did their best to make sure that he would not be re-elected.

There was a huge oil crisis in 1979 resulting in huge gasoline price increases and very long lines of cars at gas stations, supposedly in response to the Iran revolution, but more likely caused by oil companies.

it becomes obvious that much of the blame for the current gasoline shortages must also be ascribed to deliberate actions by the oil companies.

Interesting that we are, once again, getting huge gasoline price increases, way more than can be explained by international conflicts.
posted by eye of newt at 10:20 AM on June 20 [6 favorites]


Interesting that we are, once again, getting huge gasoline price increases, way more than can be explained by international conflicts.

It's not that interesting. Building out refining capability is expensive, takes long payback periods, and if federal policy is hostile, then the payback periods for new capacity becomes much shorter so you have to increase prices to pay for it. Also if Federal rhetoric is hostile, then why would they work to lower prices? They have shown to have lots of price elasticity without much demand reduction. : IE people complain and drive basically the same amount. The Republican policy of cajoling and kowtowing really does work [ie: earn less now, but you'll be protected for the next 100 years]. People are rational and lazy, even oil barrons.


Honestly, I think democratic leadership at all levels on oil is really weak - it's basically "do the same thing as Republicans, but feel bad about it" rather than supporting increases in city density, dramatic railroad expansion, dramatic highway reduction, and dramatic zoning changes so that only the people who want to be are under the thumb of oil companies.

Pushing around the edges with private solar and electric car subsidies is pretty weak.
posted by The_Vegetables at 8:34 AM on June 21


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