The Wisdom of Energy Efficiency

  • Arthur H. Rosenfeld, 2016 Tang Prize Laureate in Sustainable Development
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A particle physicist who has worked with two Nobel Laureates, Arthur H. Rosenfeld is more than an accomplished scientist, he is also an energetic proponent of energy policy and an inspiring example in efficient living. For his numerous contributions to energy efficiency he was awarded the Tang Prize in Sustainable Development for 2016.


His turn from particle physics to energy happened during the darker times of the oil crisis in the 1970s. During the Arab-Israeli War, some OPEC countries had laid a political-motivated embargo on oil against the United States. Impositions on energy supplies led people in the US to begin thinking about alternative energy sources. One night, in the backdrop of the crisis, Rosenfeld was working late at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory. He realized even though he was the last to leave the lab, all of the other office lights were still burning—many of the switches were even hidden behind bookcases and cabinets, showing that they had rarely been used. He did some quick calculations on the amount of oil wasted just by leaving the lights on at the lab over the weekend (approximately 100 gallons). Then he asked the question that would change energy in the US: “How do we supply enough energy to meet society's goals?”


Working in the Lawrence Berkeley Lab in the 1970s, Rosenfeld and his team developed the technologies that would lead to smart windows, compact florescent bulbs, white roofing, and the building energy analysis programs DOE-1, DOE-2, as well as the current gold standard Energy Plus. 


Outside of technology, Rosenfeld was hugely influential, and persuasive, in the political sphere. He convinced then-Governor Jerry Brown to adopt energy and building standards, which have kept energy consumption per capita in California flat (at only 2.2% growth per year), and have been adopted worldwide.


One particular problem in this area is that the interests of the consumer and those of the utilities are different. One solution involves what is called ‘decoupling.’ Instead of energy companies maximizing energy consumption in order to maximize profit, they instead focus on the number of customers, the quality of performance, as well as reliability and service. Without a mechanism like this in place, companies would be incentivized to sell as much energy as possible; which translates into more power plants, more fuel burned, and more emissions in the air. Rosenfeld helped to do exactly this—to incentivize energy efficiency.


Efficient energy in California has been a boon for the state: it has reduced emissions and given the state new paths on which to develop its economy. California’s own success story, which casts Rosenfeld as a major protagonist, proved that economic growth does not necessarily mean more energy consumption.


Arthur Rosenfeld passed away on January 27, 2016. To learn more about the life and work of this world-changing scientist, please visit the link below: