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Refrigerators have gotten really freaking good. Thanks, Jimmy Carter.

The underrated way energy efficiency has made life better, and climate progress possible.

A vintage black-and-white photograph shows a woman looking at display model refrigerator.
Refrigerators have gotten a lot better over the decades — without sacrificing their utility.
James W. Welgos/Welgos/Getty Images
Rebecca Leber is a senior reporter covering climate change for Vox. She was previously an environmental reporter at Mother Jones, Grist, and the New Republic. Rebecca also serves on the board of the Society of Environmental Journalists.

Consumer tech news tends to focus on the latest gadget like a new smartphone camera, but the boring old refrigerator ought to get its share of credit — when we weren’t looking, the fridge got really good.

Since the 1970s, the standard fridge has grown in size, but uses a quarter of the energy of those older models. And you’re getting more for less money, since the manufacturer price of the fridge has halved (adjusting for inflation) in those 50 years. Walk into a Home Depot or Lowes for a replacement, and you can trust that whatever you come out with could be bigger than what you had before, work better than expected, and still not raise your energy bill.

It’s not just the refrigerator that’s transformed. Clothes washers and dishwashers have also become more powerful while using less energy and water. LED lights use 75 percent less energy and last 25 times longer than incandescent. And when US energy-related carbon emissions peaked in 2007, one overlooked factor for that peak was better efficiency.

All this progress is thanks, in part, to former President Jimmy Carter, who entered hospice at age 98 in late February. While in office, he pioneered many of these gains in US efficiency.

From 1977 to 1980, Carter proposed and signed a series of laws that raised the floor for efficiency in the home. One of the most pivotal included creating the Department of Energy, and setting up the appliance standards program that exists today. They cover 65 categories that make up 90 percent of home energy usage, including washing, drying, lighting, refrigeration, heating, cooling, and cooking.

Overall, Carter was “the first president to pass a law on energy efficiency standards that had teeth,” says Jay Hakes, a former administrator of the Energy Information Administration and former director of the Jimmy Carter Presidential Library.

The size of refrigerators has grown (blue line), but they use less energy (red line), showing the power of energy efficiency.
Appliance Standards Awareness Project

“The impacts were extraordinary,” Jeff Genzer, an attorney with Duncan, Weinberg, Genzer & Pembroke who has served as counsel to the National Association of State Energy Officials since 1986. “Even though he was in office for only four years, what the advent of appliance standards produced in terms of [lower] energy costs for all consumers in the United States has to be in the hundreds of billions of dollars.”

The changes Carter made did more than just make products more efficient. They catalyzed a change in our perception of efficiency — which is still evolving today. The idea of efficiency gradually no longer meant coping with less, but about doing even more with less. Efficiency became a desired feature of the system, a way of improving people’s lives, while giving them more control of the energy system. We don’t get much of a say in which power plant we use, but we do have a say in our appliances.

Efficiency in Carter’s time was seen as a sacrifice

President Jimmy Carter speaking in front of solar panels placed on the West Wing’s roof, announcing his solar energy policy, in 1979.
Getty Images

How Americans thought of energy efficiency in the 1970s is, perhaps, best explained by a particular cardigan sweater.

In early 1977, the US was still reeling from an oil embargo, in which allied Arab nations blocked oil exports to the US in retaliation for its support for Israel in the 1973 war. The event coincided with gas prices quadrupling that caused a period of stagflation.

Carter in response tried to tap into what was left of a post-World War II ethos of political unity and sacrifice for the greater good, explained Hakes. He delivered a series of national speeches framing energy conservation as an unfortunate but necessary sacrifice. Wearing a cardigan in one, he asked Americans to put on their own sweater and lower their thermostats to save energy. He called it “energy conservation.”

“Carter, because of that cardigan sweater, made a lot of people think they were going to be freezing in the dark, but that’s not the case at all,” executive director of the American Council for an Energy-Efficient Economy (ACEEE) Steven Nadel said.

The unpleasantry of efficiency became a common theme in his speeches. In April 1977 he acknowledged his coming energy proposals would be unpopular because they “will cause you to put up with inconveniences and to make sacrifices.” Some of the proposals included new speed limits for cars (which are more efficient at lower speeds) and an oil profits windfall tax.

The parlance of the time was to talk about energy conservation, which was the language Carter used most in his speeches. A sign of its bad reputation was how politicians slowly phased out using the term “conservation” in favor of today’s preferred vocabulary — efficiency.

It turns out that the policies that had the most lasting impact were not unpleasant at all. Mandatory standards raised the floor for efficiency, while the extra-efficient technologies get a voluntary Energy Star recognition.

Appliance standards require very little sacrifice, even though they took years to finally take hold. The 1978 National Energy Conservation Policy Act enacted Carter’s vision by directing the Department of Energy to set new minimum floors for appliances that were economically and technologically feasible. Ronald Reagan reversed the eight major rules from Carter before they could take effect. But, ultimately, Reagan faced an appeals court reversal forcing him to issue his own standards, which led to a congressional amendment in 1987. The court order found Reagan’s inaction illegal because of the earlier Carter law enacted, explained Nadel.

The estimates of how much consumers have saved as a result vary, but are massive by any metric. In 2015, the Department of Energy estimated that it saved households $63 billion in utility bills for that year. Over the decades, though, the benefits have probably accrued to $1 trillion.

Carter may be better remembered today for installing solar panels on the White House than his efficiency programs. But his impacts were more pervasive, if hidden from view. “One of the things that the energy efficiency advocates bemoan is the fact that you can see a solar panel, a windmill, and a hydropower facility; you really can’t see energy efficiency,” Genzer said.

How efficiency was rebranded to mean higher quality of living

To be fair, Carter didn’t only frame conservation as sacrifice. He also talked of opportunity. “In fact, it is the most painless and immediate way of rebuilding our nation’s strength,” he said in a landmark 1979 speech. “Every gallon of oil each one of us saves is a new form of production. It gives us more freedom, more confidence, that much more control over our own lives.”

This rhetoric, unfortunately, was ahead of its time. Eventually, the US had new technology came along that made it easier to give consumers more options and control, but it was a limiting factor of the time.

Clean energy technology was too expensive and difficult to produce to be an easy substitute for fossil fuels. Fuel-switching, or being able to swap a coal plant for gas or renewables, wasn’t a real possibility. So cutting down costs did have to involve some level of using less.

The difference today is that the technology has caught up. Electric alternatives to fuel-burning products are relatively easy and low-cost. That includes induction stoves and electric heat pumps and water heaters. These aren’t just more efficient than the gas stove and gas-burning furnace and boiler, but a lot of consumers prefer them because of performance (induction stovetops do not get hot, and heat pump more evenly heats the home compared to gas).

Fossil fuel appliances have approached their limit to how efficient they’ll become. The very best furnaces out there are 95 percent efficient, whether they run on gas, oil, or propane, meaning that about 5 percent of the fuel is wasted energy. Heat pumps, in ideal conditions, blow that away, delivering two or three times the heating energy compared to what’s needed to run it. “The heat pump mainly takes the heat out of the air and just needs a little bit of energy to operate those compressors and equipment,” Nadel explained. “And that’s why it’s so much more efficient.”

The better technology gives Biden the chance to sell his own climate program as an opportunity that will improve quality of life, while Carter framed his programs as one of sacrifice. In a speech last fall talking about the Inflation Reduction Act and its investments in efficiency upgrades, Biden promised you’re “going to save a lot of money going forward because your utility bills will be lower. And that’s good for your wallet, but it’s also good for the environment because you’re using less energy.”

Efficiency now is all about the opportunism. It’s also more critical than ever to meeting climate change goals. As more buildings and cars switch from fossil fuels to electric power, efficiency will be equally important to make sure the grid is actually meeting the strain from rising demand.

The next big thing in efficiency is looking holistically at the building

Since the 1970s we’ve seen an important shift in energy efficiency. First, it was associated with “conservation” or the idea of sacrifice, then morphed into the benefits of saving on one’s energy bill and better technology. We’re shifting into a new era of energy efficiency today, one that is even more ambitious than the iterative progress over refrigerators (which still have room to improve by phasing out planet-warming hydrofluorocarbons). Now, it’s all about remaking buildings.

One main area households still have room to improve in energy conservation is their water heating. These are usually a household’s biggest utility expense, and new DOE standards would raise the bar for the lowest-performing appliances. All together, ACEEE counts standards for 47 appliances that are due for upgrades, including for water heating. These would save consumers and businesses a collective $41 billion by 2035. ACEEE estimated these updates also reduce carbon emissions at the equivalent of 13 to 25 coal plants by 2050.

The Inflation Reduction Act also changes the field, because it’s the largest federal investment in recent history to improve energy efficiency. The main crux of the law provides incentives and tax breaks to households, businesses, and manufacturers to insulate and weatherize buildings, as well as install technologies like the heat pump.

The IRA also starts to address another important, overlooked aspect of efficiency: the building itself. Buildings, not just the products that fill them, can make or break how much energy a household uses. “If you have leaks in your home or if you have really inefficient windows, no matter how efficient your appliances are, you’re still going to be using and wasting a lot of energy,” said Jamal Lewis, director of Policy Partnerships and Equitable Electrification at the advocacy group Rewiring America.

Biden’s overall tone is about what we have to gain from efficiency, not lose. And the IRA makes a big bet on efficiency as a politically popular, win-win proposition. “Look, we’re talking about real money here, to save, people,” said Biden. “And it’s just going to start kicking in now.”

Biden, like Carter, is using efficiency to help address similar economic challenges and an energy crunch stemming from events beyond US borders. The question is whether the public sees it the same way. The president can raise the bar and set an example. Ultimately, the challenge is not just learning to do more with less, but convincing people that this is a trait worth having in their next furnace, dryer, computer, or stove.