Amid a war in Southeast Asia, fomenting campus radicalism, and a looming energy crisis, a number of physicists shifted from the big science endeavors of post-war physics toward a new and little science of energy efficiency. These moves were actively supported by the American Physical Society, which took various ongoing crises as an opportunity to create employment opportunities and harness enthusiasm for more socially engaged physics. The Society’s 1974 Summer School on efficient energy use was illustrative. Participants came from universities, national laboratories, industry organizations, and utility companies. Together, they estimated efficiency savings believed achievable at certain points in the US energy system. The summer school attendees argued energy efficiency should be redefined according to the second law of thermodynamics rather than the first. This approach allowed energy-using appliances to be reconceived of as sources of energy supply as well as demand. Rigorous estimates of potential savings were made. However, to the ire of more radical physicists, the school placed the onus to conserve on the consumer, ignored industrial energy use, and had avoided drastic measures. In revisiting these events, their lead-up and afterlife, this paper historicizes a now-central tenet of energy policy.

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