Energy efficiency, as powerful as it is unglamorous, is getting its due

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The secret hero of Ronald Brownstein's article "The California Experiment" in the October Atlantic Monthly is Arthur H. Rosenfeld. A California Energy Commissioner, Rosenfeld is a winner of the Enrico Fermi Award -- the top scientific honor in the United States -- and a man widely recognized as an early champion of the of the powers of energy efficiency.

I met Rosenfeld a few years ago in his office in Sacramento. I found him to be a spry, silver-haired raconteur who wears short-sleeved shirts with a pocket protector and makes quick use of graphs and bar charts. Here's Rosenfeld in a video from CBS:

In conversation, Rosenfeld was quick to show me, for instance, that California's per capita energy consumption since 1973 has risen only half as much as that of the rest of the U.S. -- even against a backdrop of the state's per capita growth rate of 80 percent GDP. Rosenfeld has noted that only between 10 to 15 percent of that reduction in electricity use is the result of energy policy, but California is the 10th-largest economy in the world, so its lower usage is a significant amount.

Rosenfeld slipped me another graph, showing that by switching over to Energy Star refrigerators and air-conditioning units, China could save the annual equivalent of the electricity produced by the Three Gorges Dam -- which, at 100 terawatts per year, is the largest electric-generating power source in the world.

That's impressive, and we're only talking about household appliances. And here's the thing about energy efficiency, Rosenfeld quipped at the time: "It's not sexy. In years past, engineering graduates have wanted to work on something sexy, like a fusion reactor, and not on the problem of building a better refrigerator."

But in Rosenfeld's hands, much of this may be changing. Joined by other scientists who have attained within their realm something approaching rock-star status, building better refrigerators, improving standards for building design, and even building a better lightbulb have begun to attract a growing number of the country's brightest engineers, chemists, and physicists -- and lately, even business majors.

Indeed, energy efficiency may have finally become sexy. "MBAs will come from the business school," says Ben Finkelor, executive director of the University of California–Davis's Energy Efficiency Center, "and they'll be interested in some aspect of renewable energy generation": the supply side, Finkelor says, of the renewable-energy story. "Then they'll take one of our courses in energy efficiency, and they'll discover a completely untapped world. They become converts."

The program at Davis, begun in 2006, is one of three in the U.S. that focus specifically on energy efficiency, none of which existed five years ago. (The others are Stanford's Precourt Energy Efficiency Center and UC–Santa Barbara's Institute for Energy Efficiency.)

This activity is taking place against unprecedented government support of energy efficiency measures -- specifically, an infusion of $16.8 billion of stimulus money into the Department of Energy's Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy (which had an FY2008 budget of just $1.6 billion). The stimulus money includes $5 billion for weatherization, $3.2 billion for energy-efficiency block grants, and $4 billion to rehabilitate and retrofit public housing, among many other items.

With money now flowing into the field, so is the spirit of possibility. Alan Meier, who teaches energy efficiency at UC–Davis, tells students, "About 10 percent of the electricity in the U.S. is generated by hydroelectric dams. That's the same amount of electricity consumed by all of our refrigerators and freezers. It's like taking a giant extension cord and running it from our dams to our refrigerators and freezers. So is it smarter to build a new dam, or to figure out how to conserve the electricity?"

Meier put the idea of "stand-by" power on the map. His work has led to a broader public understanding that between 5 and 10 percent of the total residential electricity consumed in the U.S. goes to power devices in "standby mode" -- garage-door openers, video and stereo systems, smoke detectors, alarms, even chargers that aren't plugged in to anything. All those tiny lights that glow when you turn off everything in the house -- that electricity load multiplied by a hundred million homes roughly equals the output of ten 1000-megawatt power plants wasted every year. Figuring out how to profit by eliminating that kind of waste has become a hot field.

The idea of efficiency has evolved since it first became a public goal during the Carter administration. President Carter, a former Naval nuclear engineer, well knew that efficiency is about doing the same or more work with less energy. But the renewable-energy movement suffered on his watch, due to Carter's penchant for turning down thermostats, wearing sweaters in the Oval Office, and giving speeches suffused with a Christian sense of hair-shirt confessionalism. In his disastrous "Malaise Speech," Carter may have correctly observed that having more material possessions had not made Americans any happier, but in this context, the naval engineer's sense of efficiency gave way to a purposeful, possibly hectoring, and certainly martyred sense of "doing without" that cut against the American grain.

Then Reagan was swept into office, and down came the solar panels above the White House. America was not a country that would "do without."

We are only now discovering that the first sense of efficiency, the one that Art Rosenfeld clearly embraces, taps directly into an American spirit of Yankee ingenuity. "For the first time," Finkelor says, "we're seeing people who are majoring in business take courses in energy efficiency, because they're looking for new areas of business and entrepreneurship, and realizing that energy efficiency has many opportunities."

Or as Amory Lovins, chairman and chief scientist of the Rocky Mountain Institute, put it a year ago in discussing the recent advances in energy efficiency: "The innovation tree continues to pelt our heads with low-hanging fruit."

Mark Svenvold, author of Big Weather: Chasing Tornadoes in the Heart of America, teaches at Seton Hall University in South Orange, New Jersey.
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