Father of energy efficiency to get Fermi Award

U.S. government will give one of its highest scientific awards to one of the figures behind conservation.

Michael Kanellos Staff Writer, CNET News.com
Michael Kanellos is editor at large at CNET News.com, where he covers hardware, research and development, start-ups and the tech industry overseas.
Michael Kanellos
3 min read
Art Rosenfeld, a physicist who helped jump-start the push for energy-efficient appliances and homes, will receive the Fermi Award from the U.S. government next week.

During the OPEC (Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries) oil crisis of the 1970s, Rosenfeld, a veteran researcher at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and a member of the California Energy Commission, began to study the amount of energy consumed by appliances, air conditioning systems and buildings.

The findings were surprising. New refrigerators, which had consumed 400 kilowatt-hours a year on average in 1959, were consuming 800 kilowatt-hours a year. To gain extra storage space, manufacturers removed insulation and gunned the refrigeration motor.

Buildings weren't designed for energy efficiency either. They were often heated with electricity, rather than gas--an approach that's far less efficient--and came with huge lighting systems that caused air conditioners to work even harder.

"Autos were getting 14 miles a gallon," he recalled. "Energy efficiency wasn't part of the American ethic whatsoever."

Regulations enacted by state legislators to limit energy consumption prompted private industry to retool products, which put a dent in growing energy consumption. An average refrigerator now consumes about 435 kilowatt-hours a year, about half that chewed up by a 1973-vintage fridge. New refrigerators also typically sport more storage space than their 1973 counterparts and cost less when adjusted for inflation.

Had changes not been enacted, a new fridge would likely consume about 1,870 kilowatt-hours and cost $200 a year to run, Rosenfeld said. Average car mileage grew to 21 miles a gallon by 1985 but then stalled out.

Nonetheless, manufacturers bristled at the new regulations.

"They all claimed it was the...end of civilization as we knew it," the 79-year-old scientist said.

Overall, the regulations, and technological achievements of manufacturers, have put a significant crimp in energy consumption. By Rosenfeld's own estimates, efficiency technologies cut energy spending in the U.S. by $700 billion in 2005 alone. (In other words, had such technologies not existed, the U.S. would have spent $1.7 trillion, rather than $1 trillion, to power appliances, cars and buildings last year.) The Department of Energy has said the changes have saved more than $100 billion over the past 30-plus years.

New technologies, encouraged in part by regulations, will cut energy consumption further. By 2008, for instance, California contractors will be required to put "cool colored" roofs on buildings. These roofs reflect energy from the sun and thereby lower air conditioning needs. The white roofs of the Greek islands do the same thing, but the roof tiles and materials for cool colored roofs can be dyed to look dark and they'll still perform the same task. BASF, among others, has already started coming out with products.

"The shingles will look brown to the human eye, but to the sun they will look white," Rosenfeld said.

Over time, California homes will be equipped with smart meters, which regulate residential electrical use. During critical afternoon hours, when electricity costs the most, the meters will automatically throttle back energy consumption.

Throttling back will cut home energy consumption and also reduce the need for plants to provide energy during peak times. Blackouts can also become less likely.

Rosenfeld also supports placing a tax on SUVs, based on the carbon these vehicles put into the atmosphere. The tax can be coupled with incentive payments to owners of energy efficient cars. Per person, the U.S. still emits more carbon dioxide than other industrialized nations.

"We've got to get transportation under control," he said. "We continue to work on automobile energy efficiency, but it all goes into bigger engines and more acceleration."

Asked how much of global warming can be attributed to humans, he replied: "My guess is 90 percent."

Named after Italian-American physicist Enrico Fermi, the Fermi Award is for lifetime contributions to the field of energy. It's one of the oldest scientific awards issued by the federal government. Past recipients include Edward Teller and Hans Bethe.

In an interesting historical twist, Rosenfeld was one of Fermi's last graduate students at the University of Chicago in the late 1940s and early 1950s.

The award will be formally presented during an event in Washington, D.C., on June 21.