Arthur Rosenfeld, Zealous Champion of Energy Efficiency, Dies at 90 (New York Times)

  • Arthur H. Rosenfeld, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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Arthur H. Rosenfeld, a physicist who became widely known as the father of energy efficiency for championing energy-saving requirements for appliances and buildings, died on Friday in Berkeley, Calif. He was 90.

The cause was related to pneumonia, said Adam Gottlieb, a marketing and outreach specialist with the California Energy Commission, with which Dr. Rosenfeld worked for 10 years.

His work, embraced at first in California under Gov. Jerry Brown, gained national attention and helped lay the foundation for federal energy-efficiency rules that are in place today.

Dr. Rosenfeld’s awakening to energy efficiency came in 1973, when the Arab oil embargo caused energy prices to soar and long lines to form at gas pumps. He was then 18 years into a highly regarded academic career in nuclear and particle physics at the University of California, Berkeley.

One Friday night in November 1973, vexed at Americans’ tendency to waste huge amounts of energy even at the height of the crisis, Dr. Rosenfeld decided to turn out the lights in all 20 offices on his laboratory’s floor. He had always turned off his own lights — a product, perhaps, of his having lived through the Great Depression. But most of his colleagues did not, even when leaving for the weekend.

Dr. Rosenfeld calculated the amount of oil-equivalent energy wasted, and searched behind cabinets, bookcases and posters for the switches.

“After 20 minutes of uncovering light switches (and saving 100 gallons for the weekend), I decided that U.C. Berkeley and its Radiation Laboratory should do something about conservation,” he wrote in a short autobiography posted on the California Energy Commission website.

He immediately convened academics and other experts to figure out what to do about the country’s energy-guzzling habits. The problem was easy to diagnose, he wrote: “Oil and gas were as cheap as dirt or water, and so they were treated like dirt or water.”

Having traveled to physics laboratories abroad, Dr. Rosenfeld knew that Europeans used far less energy per unit of economic output than Americans did yet maintained similar living standards. Surely, he reasoned, the United States could cut its energy use, too.

In 1975, he created the Energy Efficient Buildings Program (later renamed the Center for Building Science) at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and set about studying how making appliances like refrigerators and air-conditioners more efficient could cut energy use significantly and save billions of dollars. (One byproduct of the lab’s research was the introduction of energy-efficient compact fluorescent lamps.)

Dr. Rosenfeld’s ideas caught the ears of powerful people, including Governor Brown, then in his first tenure in that office. (He was elected again in 2010.) Dr. Rosenfeld shared a dinner table with Mr. Brown at a faculty club event at Berkeley in the mid-1970s, and the two discussed a proposed nuclear plant called Sundesert.

Dr. Rosenfeld told the governor that just by requiring refrigerators to be more energy efficient, the state could save as much electricity as the Sundesert plant would produce. The next morning, Dr. Rosenfeld got a call from a top California energy official.

“He said, ‘Art, I think you’d be happy to know that Jerry Brown woke me up this morning at 8 a.m. to know if this guy Art Rosenfeld is real,’” Dr. Rosenfeld recalled years later. “And that was the unraveling of Sundesert.”

Energy-efficiency requirements for refrigerators and freezers sold in California went into effect in 1977. They were soon followed by standards for other appliances. In 1987, the federal government, following California’s lead, began imposing its own efficiency requirements for appliances.

California also adopted, in 1978, the first state energy-efficient building code, partly as a result of Dr. Rosenfeld’s research. In what is sometimes called the “Rosenfeld effect,” California’s per-capita electricity use has remained relatively steady since the mid-1970s, despite the proliferation of gadgetry. The rest of the nation’s usage, meanwhile, has climbed.

Arthur Rosenfeld was born on June 22, 1926, in Birmingham, Ala. His father was an agronomist who studied sugar cane. The family lived through the beginnings of the Depression in New Orleans before moving to Egypt, where his father consulted on sugar-cane growing. His parents taught him to turn off the lights when leaving a room, and they both drove small cars, according to The Los Angeles Times.

Dr. Rosenfeld was only 18 when he received a bachelor’s degree in industrial physics from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He served in the Navy in World War II, spending two years teaching radar operators in Chicago.

He studied physics at the University of Chicago under Enrico Fermi, the Nobel laureate who created the world’s first controlled nuclear chain reaction under an abandoned university football stadium. He received a Ph.D. in 1954.

Dr. Rosenfeld’s research in energy efficiency led to an advisory role at the Department of Energy under President Bill Clinton. He also served on the California Energy Commission from 2000 to 2010.

After retiring at 83, Dr. Rosenfeld traveled the country speaking about ways to cut energy use and heat in cities. He particularly endorsed the concept of “white roofs,” which reflect more sunlight than dark ones and thus are an easy way to save on air-conditioning costs.

In 2006, President George W. Bush awarded Dr. Rosenfeld the Enrico Fermi Award, one of the nation’s top science honors. President Barack Obama presented him with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2011.

The year before, a group of scientists proposed a unit of measurement in his name. The “Rosenfeld,” they said, should refer to annual electricity savings of three billion kilowatt-hours — enough to eliminate the need for a coal plant.

Last year, Dr. Rosenfeld received the Tang Prize, a recently established Taiwanese award sometimes referred to as Asia’s version of the Nobel.

His wife of 53 years, Roselyn Bernheim Rosenfeld, known as Roz, died in 2009. Dr. Rosenfeld, who lived in Berkeley, is survived by two daughters, Dr. Margaret Rosenfeld and Dr. Anne Hansen; and six grandchildren.

“Art Rosenfeld helped make California the world leader in energy efficiency,” Governor Brown said in a statement on Friday. “His pathbreaking ideas transformed our energy sector from one of massive waste to increasingly elegant efficiency. I will miss him.”