By Aylin Y. Woodward, The Mercury News
In 2013, President Obama awarded Berkeley physicist Art Rosenfeld with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Rosenfeld, known as the “godfather” of energy efficiency in California, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley.
White House In 2013, President Obama awarded Berkeley physicist Art Rosenfeld with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation. Rosenfeld, known as the “godfather” of energy efficiency in California, died on Friday at his home in Berkeley. (Courtesy of the White House)
Long before flipping off the light switch became part of California’s conservation culture, Art Rosenfeld was championing the idea that the cheapest form of energy was the kind you don’t use.
California’s “godfather” of energy efficiency died Friday at the age of 90 in his Berkeley home, heralded for galvanizing an era of rigorous energy standards that have turned California into a model of energy savings.
“His path-breaking ideas transformed our energy sector from one of massive waste to increasingly elegant efficiency,” Gov. Jerry Brown said Friday in a statement.
Rosenfeld was a UC Berkeley physicist who served two consecutive terms on the California Energy Commission from 2000 to 2010.
“He had such a brilliant mind,” said Kathryn Phillips, director of Sierra Club California. “And he was always using it to improve what we were doing as a society.”
Born in Alabama in 1926, Rosenfeld served in the US Navy for two years before attending the University of Chicago, pursuing a Ph.D. in physics under the tutelage of Nobel Laureate Enrico Fermi. He eventually joined Luis Alvarez’s particle physics group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory until the early 1970s, when an “aha” moment in the midst of long lines at the gas pump during the 1973 oil crisis sparked his interest in efficient energy use.
“He recognized early on, earlier than anyone else I think, that really great gains will come from energy efficiency,” fellow physicist Richard Muller from the Alvarez Lab said in a 2010 Los Angeles Times interview.
Rosenfeld’s work led to breakthroughs in low-energy lighting, insulated windows, refrigerators and improved duct work in commercial office buildings, as he turned the field of energy efficiency on its head. He liked expressing results in terms of equivalencies, not scientific units, like how many cars needed to be taken off the road to save certain kilowatts of energy or how many power plants need not be built, according to a news release from the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory.
Researchers coined the term, the “Rosenfeld effect,” to explain why California’s per capita use of electricity hasn’t changed since the mid-1970s. They chalk up the state’s consistency — while the country’s usage has climbed 50 percent over the last 40 years — to Rosenfeld’s efforts.
“The price of liberty is eternal vigilance, and the price of energy efficiency is eternal nagging,” Rosenfeld said in a KQED radio interview in 2010.
Eventually, Rosenfeld served as senior adviser to the U.S. Department of Energy’s assistant secretary for energy efficiency and renewable energy from 1994 to 1999 until he was appointed as Commissioner for the California Energy Commission by Gov. Gray Davis in 2000 and re-appointed in 2005 by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“His appointment was a stroke of genius,” said the Sierra Club California’s Phillips, who asserts Rosenfeld’s efforts as inextricably tied to environmental issues. “Any time you reduce energy use, you’re ultimately reducing air pollution and climate emissions.”
Indeed, Rosenfeld’s forward thinking continues to pay growing dividends. “The climate crisis has given his work even greater significance,” said former Secretary of Energy Steve Chu in the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory news release. “The field Art pioneered is now indispensable in how we transition to a sustainable future.”
Rosenfeld received countless awards, including the Enrico Fermi Award — one of the most prestigious science and technology awards given by the U.S. government — in 2006. President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation in 2013 for the development of energy efficient building technologies.
“California’s leadership in energy efficiency for the last four decades has been the direct result of his subsequent actions as a scientist, policy-maker, and intellectual leader,” said Jim Sweeney, director of Stanford University’s Precourt Energy Efficiency Center, who cites Rosenfeld as his inspiration for being an energy leader. “It is safe to say that, without Art, energy would now be costing all California families a far larger share of their income and thus lower their quality of life.”
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