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Remembering Art – and what buying a fax machine can teach you

Published on: 31 Jan 2017

Columnists: Nils Borg, European Council for an Energy Efficient Economy

If you are interested in energy efficiency and know just a little bit of its history, you can’t have missed that Art Rosenfeld passed away last Friday at the age of 90. I have been around long enough to have met him several times, and so have many others. Many wonderful tributes have been written this weekend. Here’s one more with a little help from LBNL’s official obituary, and memories of him retelling when he bought a fax machine.

The Lawrence Berkeley National Lab obituary calls Art the Godfather of Energy Efficiency, and introduces him as follows:

“A particle physicist who decided one evening four decades ago to turn off unused lights in his Berkeley Lab office building, Rosenfeld went on to create the field of energy efficiency, inspire an entire generation of energy researchers, and conduct the rigorous engineering analyses that would lead to breakthroughs in low-energy lighting, windows, refrigerators, buildings, and many other areas, while convincing utilities and policymakers that new power plants—and their accompanying greenhouse gas emissions—were not necessary.”

The LBNL obituary explains his famous “Rosenfeld effect”, which was coined to explain why California’s per capita electricity usage has remained flat since the mid-1970s while U.S. usage has climbed steadily and is now 50 per cent higher than it was 40 years ago. He is also behind “Rosenfeld’s Law”, which states that the amount of energy required to produce one dollar of economic output has decreased by about 1 per cent per year since 1845. LBNL writes:

“Rosenfeld was famous for his detailed calculations, but he also had a knack for translating the results into terms that could be easily understood. For the layperson, results were expressed not in scientific units but in terms of equivalencies, such as how many cars would be taken off the road or how many power plants that would not need to be built. In 2010, 54 scientists from 26 institutions around the world co-authored a paper proposing the 'Rosenfeld,' a unit of measurement to express that very concept—they defined the Rosenfeld as 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.”

Art thus came from the world of particle physics but ended up devoting his carrier to energy efficiency. However, I think it is enlightening to see that he was not just a man of theory. The LBNL obituary expands on the light bulb story from his 1999 autobiography. During the OPEC oil embargo in 1973 he was sitting at the office and thinking about waiting in line the next day to buy gas. He decided to calculate how much energy could be saved by turning off unused lights. That was the turning point.

“After 20 minutes of uncovering light switches (and saving 100 gallons for the weekend), I decided that UC Berkeley and its Radiation Laboratory should do something about conservation,” he wrote in his autobiography.

So not just theory, but action. I vividly remember when I met Art at an IEA DSM meeting outside Washington in the late 90s. He worked at the DOE at the time and came by bike to our meeting. He had been ordering a fax machine – yes, a fax machine and no, not online, it was called mail order at that time! He was slightly delayed and a tiny bit annoyed – and amused – after having been stuck on the phone with the sales representative of the mail order company.

The sales person had told Art that his fax machine would be shipped by air and arrive the next day. Art said he didn’t need it the next day and would be happy with surface delivery a few days later since that mode of delivery would use less energy and emit less carbon dioxide. First, it couldn’t be done, and when he insisted, they finally offered surface shipping at a higher price. The sales representative, as Art would retell the story, thought Art was crazy. But he stood by his principles and made his point. And we all had a good laugh. Now, 20 years later, it reminds me that actions matter.

A full tribute has been posted by LBNL

A LBNL memorial page can be found here with video clips, articles and more

A video tribute to Art compiled by ACEEE in 2014 is here