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photo of David Goldstein

A Brilliant Mind
Thirty years ago, David Goldstein took on an energy hog. It was an act of genius.

David B. Goldstein is too modest to think of himself as a genius. But he'll have to learn to live with the label. After laboring for years in relative obscurity to make our nation's refrigerators, washing machines, buildings, and lots of other things more energy efficient, this September the fifty-one-year-old Ph.D. in physics was named a MacArthur Fellow. The prize comes with a no-strings-attached $500,000 grant and is nicknamed the "genius award."

What did the co-director of NRDC's energy program do to deserve this? The short answer is that he's spent nearly three decades working to make sure that everyday things use smaller and smaller amounts of energy.

"I grew up in Cleveland, Ohio, during a time when there was lots of air pollution," he says. "And you couldn't miss, even as a child, that there was all this black stuff going up the smoke stack."

That image stayed with him during his years at the University of California at Berkeley, where he studied physics with Arthur Rosenfeld. While many experts were tackling vehicle fuel economy, these two concentrated on another energy hog: buildings, which used a more than a third of America's energy. Goldstein set to work on the government side of things, developing efficiency standards for refrigerators, which (along with air-conditioners) were the largest consumers of electricity in the home. In 1976, California adopted those standards -- the nation's first.

By 1986, Goldstein, who started working for NRDC in 1976, had negotiated national energy standards for a wide range of appliances. Tens of millions of refrigerators, water heaters, and washers have been produced since then -- which means that Goldstein has personally lowered Americans' utility bills. Today, his work on energy efficiency standards for appliances is saving as much energy every year as the entire output of the U.S. nuclear energy program.

Appliances, however, were just the beginning. Among other achievements, he helped develop California's building-efficiency standards, which cover everything from lighting to windows; and took his expertise abroad, helping China and Russia cut their energy use in buildings.

As for the half-million dollars, Goldstein will say only that he'll use it to further his work. He also predicts that, though he is the first, he will not be the last NRDC advocate to be named a MacArthur Fellow.
-- Craig Noble

It took a heck of a lot of energy to heat up the 50-plus gallons of water that old-school washers used. So Goldstein and the Consortium for Energy Efficiency, which he co-founded in 1991, came up with an incentive program for manufacturers to make better ones -- and they did. Turns out the new machines save more than just energy.

Old School Clothes are continuously submerged in some 50 gallons of water.

New School In one design, clothes spin on a horizontal axis, traveling two-thirds up the side of the machine then falling into a shallow bath of just 20-25 gallons of water.

Old School Agitator vanes drive clothes up and down like an auger.

New School No middle agitator means room for about 30 percent more clothes -- and means they'll last longer.

Old School Spin cycle turns at about 640 rotations per minute.

New School Spin cycle turns at about 1100 rotations per minute, significantly cutting dryer time and energy use.

Old School Dryers' heat stays at a constant temperature from start to finish.

New School Dryers' moisture sensors lower temperatures as clothes dry. (Still, nothing is as energy efficient as a clothesline.)

photo of washing machines

Photos: top, Brennan Cavanaugh; bottom, courtesy of Whirlpool Corporation

OnEarth. Winter 2003
Copyright 2002 by the Natural Resources Defense Council