NRDC OnEarth
NRDC   OnEarth
The Earth’s Best Defense

Current Issue
About OnEarth

Cover, Current Issue
Letter from the Editor
Contact OnEarth
Full Table of Contents
Back Issues
Media Kit

NRDC Membership

A NEW WEBSITE! blogs, more multimedia, and award-winning journalism come join the conversation at

Feature Story
California Illuminates the World
Page 2

Nobody knows the power of energy efficiency better than Art Rosenfeld, who was present at the creation of the concept as we know it. Rosenfeld is a kind of human power plant -- one that generates not megawatts, but "negawatts" of avoided energy consumption (to use the famous coinage of Amory Lovins, cofounder of the Rocky Mountain Institute). The type of energy that Rosenfeld thought about for the first half of his career had nothing to do with oil fields or power plants. His specialty was particle physics -- the science of smashing protons and other subatomic bits of matter as a means of teasing out fundamental secrets about the universe. He was a member (and later leader) of a group headed by the Nobel Prize-winning physicist Luis Alvarez at the Radiation Laboratory at the University of California, Berkeley, now known as the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBL).

Photos of Susan Kennedy and Art RosenfeldWhen the OPEC oil embargo hit in October 1973, Rosenfeld did a little math. He discovered that if Americans used energy as efficiently as the Europeans or Japanese, the United States could have been exporting oil in 1973, rather than sitting in rationing lines at gas stations. The solution, he realized, was not to bend the Arab oil regimes to America's will but to end America's thralldom to them by wasting less energy.

The following summer, Rosenfeld and a few like-minded physicists organized a month long workshop, held at Princeton, that attracted top scientists and engineers from fields such as building design, transportation, the manufacturing sector, and gas and electric utilities. "We began looking at some things that were all sort of common sense," he recalls. "Change incandescent lights to fluorescents, make better use of skylights, put more insulation in buildings, that kind of thing. By the end of the first week, we realized that we had blundered into one of the world's largest oil and gas fields. The energy was buried, in effect, in the buildings of our cities, the vehicles on our roads, and the machines in our factories. A few of us began to suspect that the knowledge we gained during that month would change our lives."

Rosenfeld decided to spend a little more time -- maybe six months -- expanding on that knowledge. Sitting in a busy Silicon Valley restaurant more than 30 years later, his usual squinting smile assumes a rueful tinge: "I just vastly underestimated how long my sabbatical from particle physics would last." The six months drew out to a year, the year turned into another year. Somewhere along the way, he passed the point of no return.

Rosenfeld formed a group at LBL to create a computer program that modeled the energy performance of buildings. If you built, say, a 3,000-square-foot house in the mountains near Lake Tahoe and put in a big north-facing picture window, how much energy would it take to heat the house in January? What if the picture window faced south -- how much would that lower the heating bills? Now, plop the same house down in the Mojave Desert town of Barstow, California. What changes would you make to minimize the need for air-conditioning? Rosenfeld's program provided much more accurate answers, and was far more user-friendly, than a previous attempt at the same kind of modeling software.

With state and federal funding, Rosenfeld's group refined the program, and then in 1976 released it into the public domain. Originally called "Two-Zone," it is now known as DOE-2. The California Energy Commission, created in the early 1970s to conduct research and create efficiency standards (among other mandates), adopted DOE-2 as the basis for setting energy-performance standards under Title 24. The commission estimated that buildings constructed under Title 24 -- and, therefore, designed using the Rosenfeld/DOE program -- eventually ramped up to energy savings of $5 billion a year. Other states followed California's lead, and Rosenfeld guesses that DOE-2 is now used in the design of 15 percent to 20 percent of all new buildings in the United States. More than 40 countries, from the northern climes of Canada and Switzerland to the tropics of Singapore, Thailand, and Indonesia, have also adopted the program.

Needing a home for his new line of research, Rosenfeld and two colleagues started an energy-efficient-buildings program, which later morphed into LBL's Center for Building Science. Rosenfeld led the program from 1974 to 1994 -- a golden era of energy efficiency in the Golden State. During this period, the program developed a series of energy-saving gadgets that remains a kind of "greatest hits" of the field. One invention was the high-frequency ballast -- a solid-state power source that improves the efficiency of a standard fluorescent rod but uses 20 percent less electricity. In the hands of lamp manufacturers such as Philips, the high-frequency ballast led to the creation of the compact fluorescent lamp (CFL), a mainstay of energy-efficiency programs throughout the world. Another breakthrough was the low-emissivity, or "low-e," window -- a window with a thin coating that allows visible light to pass through but captures or reflects the sun's invisible near-infrared radiation, which produces heat. Low-e coatings roughly double the energy performance of standard double-glazed windows.

In the mid-1970s, Rosenfeld and one of his graduate students, David Goldstein, uncovered some chilling facts about refrigerators: On average, they realized, the most energy-efficient refrigerators on the market cost the same as the least efficient ones. If there were a basic appliance standard that eliminated the least efficient half of the refrigerators, they told then-governor Jerry Brown, it would save 1,500 megawatts' worth of generating capacity (the equivalent of one and a half typical nuclear power stations) -- and consumers would notice no difference in the price of a new fridge. The California Energy Commission quickly developed a performance standard for new refrigerators and freezers, which in 1977 helped bring about a moratorium on the building of nuclear power plants in California. National refrigerator standards, which trace their origins to California's, are today saving more than 130,000 megawatts of electrical generating capacity.

Rosenfeld takes a few moments to sum up the savings from the major efficiency technologies and policies that originated at LBL during his tenure. "Let's see," he muses. "The DOE-2 computer program is used in building standards that save the country, conservatively, $10 billion a year in electricity and natural-gas costs. High-frequency ballasts for fluorescent lamps are saving the United States around $5 billion worth of electricity a year. Low-e windows are probably saving between $5 billion and $10 billion a year. Then if you look at refrigerator standards, which originated with us, improvements in refrigerator efficiency since 1974 are now saving the country around $17 billion a year."

Rosenfeld retired from Berkeley and LBL in 1994, when he was summoned to Washington to work in the Department of Energy as senior science adviser to the assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy. When the election of 2000 ended his job (and any hope for an aggressive approach to energy efficiency at the federal level), he headed back to California and started his fourth career -- this time as an appointee of then-governor Gray Davis to the California Energy Commission. At the age of 79, Rosenfeld is now serving his second five-year term on the commission, having been reappointed last year by Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Return of the Black Rhino
Katrina's Rough Burial
Saving an American Icon
The Edelweiss Institute 1812

Print this article Click to enlarge
Click to enlarge

The California-China Syndrome

China's breakneck economic growth is fueled mostly by dirty and inefficient coal-burning power plants. The consequences are painfully evident in the sulfurous pall that fouls the air and the power outages that plague China's industrial centers. It was not hard for Chinese officials to see a reflection of their own dilemma in the rolling blackouts that hit California in 2000 and 2001.

Page:  1  2  3

Photo: Steve LaBadessa
Charts: Geoffrey McCormack

OnEarth. Spring 2006
Copyright 2006 by the Natural Resources Defense Council