Close Mobile Menu

The Power of Less

September 17, 2009
by Lisa Margonelli
Art Rosenfeld holding a lightbulb

Early one November evening, 1973: Gasoline supplies have been cut by the month-old Arab Oil Embargo and people wait in long lines to buy gas. Inside Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratories, particle physicist Art Rosenfeld’s office is lit by 12 dazzling 60-watt fluorescent lights, which allows him to make a startling calculation. The light bulbs in his office are burning the equivalent of .05 gallons of oil per hour, and if he leaves them on all weekend, as nearly everyone does, his empty office will have burned the equivalent of four gallons of gasoline by the time he returns on Monday morning. “So this was the funny thing,” he says, “There are 20 lights filling the rooms between my office and the door of the building, and I figure it’ll save 60 gallons of oil if I switch them off.” But he can’t—bookshelves and posters hide the switches. Forty-five minutes later, having rearranged the furniture and turned out the lights, he exits the building thinking “there’s something wrong.”

Rosenfeld has spent the past 33 years trying to fix what’s wrong with the way we use energy, becoming, in the process, the invisible finger on light switches all over California and even the world. Considered “the father of energy efficiency,” Rosenfeld left physics to lay the intellectual underpinnings of the new field at the Center for Building Science, which he founded at LBNL. The tools, technologies, and policies produced at the lab spread into the state of California, so that residents here now use 30 percent less electricity per capita than the rest of the country. When Rosenfeld received the Fermi Prize for lifetime achievement in physics last year, the EPA credited all the efficiency initiatives adopted between 1973 and 2005—the “Rosenfeld Efficiency Factor”—with saving an amount of electricity equivalent to 21 percent of U.S. consumption last year, or $228 billion. “I got seduced by success,” says Rosenfeld, now a commissioner at the California Energy Commission. “In the beginning, I had the romantic notion that I’d go back to physics, but with each new technology we were saving another $5 billion annually!”

Along the way, Rosenfeld and the people he’s trained have remodeled much of what we think of as home. He’s changed the windows to conserve energy, made the roofs reflective, and stuffed the walls with insulation. Researchers at LBNL did work that paved the way for the invention of the compact fluorescent light bulb, and efficient air conditioners, furnaces, water heaters, and, of course, refrigerators.

When Rosenfeld first looked at a fridge in 1973, he saw oil reserves hidden in the crisper drawer. Figuring out how to save energy on the refrigerator— which used a whopping 1,800 kilowatts of electricity a year then—was as good as finding an oil well in your kitchen. Better, actually.When Rosenfeld first looked at a fridge in 1973, he saw oil reserves hidden in the crisper drawer. Figuring out how to save energy on the refrigerator— which used a whopping 1,800 kilowatts of electricity a year then—was as good as finding an oil well in your kitchen. Better, actually.

The fridge of 1973 was an energy hog—with thin walls and doors that didn’t stay shut. Its hot, inefficient motor worked only because it was submerged in refrigerant. Heat exchangers skimped on copper. Grad student David Goldstein, who’s now at the Natural Resources Defense Council, and the recipient of a MacArthur Award, went to appliance stores and found that there was no difference in price between an efficient fridge and an inefficient one. “We’d grown up in a world where energy was dirt cheap, and what’s cheap gets treated like dirt,” observes Rosenfeld.

Rosenfeld approached then-Governor Jerry Brown and told him that if California instituted standards allowing only the most efficient refrigerators to be sold in the state, we could save the electrical equivalent of a nuclear power plant. Brown, who wanted to ban nukes, agreed, and California instituted the first standards in 1974. During the 1980s, the U.S. took California’s lead and adopted standards—with the result that today’s refrigerator uses just a quarter of the electricity it did in 1973. Chances are it’s also bigger and much cheaper. All in all, the newer models are saving the U.S. $17 billion in electricity a year. In China, they’ll save half the electricity generated by the Three Gorges Dam.

Energy efficiency has proliferated since that November evening as hundreds of grad students and scientists have gone from LBNL to elsewhere—Washington, Beijing, Moscow—carrying ideas with them. Still, the U.S. is far less efficient than Europe or Japan, so there is more “oil” remaining in our walls. “People worry that all the low-hanging fruit has been picked,” says Jim McMahon, head of LBNL’s Energy Analysis Department. “But efficiency is a moving target. You pick the fruit this year and there’s more the next.”

Changing the world a billion light bulbs at a time is an idea whose simplicity belies its power. Conventional wisdom says that as the Third World gets richer and uses more energy, all of us will simmer in greenhouse gases. But calculations by Rosenfeld and Berkeley graduate John Wilson of the California Energy Commission suggest another future entirely. If the world maintains a 3 percent yearly improvement in efficiency through the year 2100, all 10 billion of our grandchildren will be able to live at a European standard of living using just half the total quantity of energy we use now, and emitting half the greenhouse gases.

Today Rosenfeld has already moved on to the next challenge. He points to a sparkling metallic contraption (an ultraviolet water purifier) in the foyer of his house, explaining that it can purify 10 tons of water a day, enough so that a large village can avoid boiling water with scarce wood, avoiding about seven tons of CO2 per day with every single device. He’s recently started a fund to spur the adoption of this and other technologies around the world, using money from his Fermi Prize. He pulls out a photo of three African teachers struggling to grade papers by the light of a single kerosene lantern: “Replace a billion kerosene lanterns with LED lights and you’ll save more than 1.3 million barrels of oil a day,” he says. “It’s like taking every SUV in America and turning it into a Camry.”

Share this article