Legacy of Art Rosenfeld Is the Future of Energy Efficiency

Art accepting the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama

This blog was co-authored by my colleagues Devra Wang (Heising-Simons Foundation) and Audrey Chang (Independent Consultant)

Dr. Arthur Rosenfeld, the “father of energy efficiency,” passed away last week. Art was one of America’s greatest scientists and technological innovators. He made countless substantive, tangible contributions to the field of energy efficiency, ranging from gadgets invented, methods produced, energy centers founded, energy and money saved, and environmental impacts reduced. 

But the greatest contribution that he made is even more fundamental to the incredible success of energy efficiency—throughout his career, Art mentored and inspired most of today’s energy efficiency leaders and built the movement’s infrastructure. He built an energy efficiency army and we are proud to be among its soldiers. 

The Rosenfeld Effect

Art recognized the economic and environmental benefits of energy efficiency before most. The advances he helped make, including more efficient lighting and controls like motion sensors, meant that he no longer had to go hunting for light switches so he could turn them off—as he did on a fateful night in his Berkeley Lab office during the height of the energy crisis in November 1973, when he saw how many lights were burning and was inspired to create the field of energy efficiency.  That night began Art’s quest to stop energy waste and the result of that quest is the Rosenfeld Effect.

Art lecturing

That effect is brilliantly illustrated in California. Art made the state better than anyone else at using energy efficiently. In California, electricity use has been basically stable per person over the last 30 years—even though it is up by around 50 percent for the rest of the country. Over this time, Californians saved a whopping $90 billion on utility bills and avoided the amount of power needed from 30 giant power plants (or “Rosenfelds”, see below). 

Before Art made the switch to the energy efficiency field from theoretical physics in the early 70’s, California’s per capita electricity use was accelerating at about the same rate as the rest of the country. The first blip downward could have been the energy crisis triggered by the OPEC oil embargo of 1973 or it could have been the moment that Art made the switch—you decide.

Efficiency Helps Keep Per Capita Electricity Use Flat

Not just in California

California’s efficiency improvements came not at a cost to the economy, but at a very real benefit in reduced energy bills and pollution. Art knew, and was able to demonstrate, that economic growth need not come with proportional increases in power consumption.

Nationwide, annual energy consumption is about the same today as in 2000 even as the economy grew 30 percent over that period; this is in large part thanks to energy efficiency. And it proves that economic and environmental progress can go hand-in-hand.

The house that Art built

LBNL Research Center

When Art launched the energy efficiency field, there were virtually no research laboratories or graduate degree programs specializing in the field. That didn’t stop Art—he co-founded the Energy Efficient Buildings Program at California’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. 

He helped found the Energy and Resources Group at UC Berkeley and the UC Davis Energy Efficiency Center, which went on to train many leaders in the energy efficiency field.  He also co-founded the American Council for an Energy Efficient Economy (ACEEE), helped make the California Energy Commission and the U.S. Department of Energy world leaders on efficiency, and the list goes on.

The Rosenfeld

More than 50 scientists from around the world who were inspired by Art, led by Jonathan Koomey and Chris Calwell, co-authored a paper proposing the “Rosenfeld,” a unit of measurement to express their appreciation for Art’s contributions. The Rosenfeld represents electricity savings of 3 billion kilowatt-hours per year, the amount needed to replace the annual generation of a 500 megawatt coal-fired power plant. It was meant as a convenient way to perform back-of-the-envelope calculations about the elimination of proposed power plants thanks to smarter energy use by consumers.

The gift of Art

Art was brilliant. He received the Enrico Fermi Award from President George W. Bush and the National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Barack Obama, among many honors too numerous to list. But the thing that always impressed us the most about him is what a kind and generous human being he was. We will miss him more than words can express, but we are the army that he built and he lives on through our work and that of many, many others.

Cheers Art!

Art and his wife Roz
Credit: ACEEE