Rekindle Its Efforts
To Conserve Electricity
Dr. Rosenfeld Tests Solutions
He Says Won't Require
State to Sacrifice Comfort
White Roofs, Digital Meters
By John Emshwiller
The Wall Street Journal
(Copyright (c) 2001, Dow Jones & Company, Inc.)
SACRAMENTO, Calif. -- With unruly white hair and a mildly
absent-minded manner, 74-year-old Arthur Rosenfeld looks like the
retired physics professor he is. But these days he has a new career:
developing stealth weapons to help keep electricity shortages from
short-circuiting California this summer.
Dr. Rosenfeld's humble proving grounds are Building G, a somewhat
grimy one-story structure owned by the Sacramento Municipal Utility
District, and a spiffier Kaiser Permanente medical office building 10
miles away. There's nothing remarkable about the two facilities --
except that both have slashed their electricity demand for lighting and
air-conditioning by as much as 30%, largely without their occupants
noticing the change.
To cut its consumption, Building G used a combination of digital
electric meters and basic physics. The Kaiser office's method was even
less sophisticated; it simply replaced its flat dark roof with a flat
Can simple and unobtrusive conservation measures like these be the
best way to attack an electrical-power crisis? "That's exactly right,"
says Dr. Rosenfeld. And, as the newest member of the five-person
California Energy Commission, he is in a strong position to influence
other energy policy makers in the state.
He may find a receptive audience. That's because the electricity
crisis that erupted here last summer and gave rise to rolling blackouts
across the state last month has thrust electricity conservation back
near the top of the state's political agenda, after a lengthy hiatus.
Now, amid the sky-high wholesale power prices and the shortages wrought
by the state's flawed 1996 electricity deregulation law, Gov. Gray Davis
has vowed to slash the state's electricity consumption this summer by
more than 3,200 megawatts, or about 7%. To set an example, he has
sharply turned down his thermostat at home and the lighting in his
But Dr. Rosenfeld isn't a big fan of the self-deprivation approach to
electricity savings. He argues that the best kind of conservation, and
the kind people are most likely to accept, "doesn't affect how you
live." For more than a quarter century, he has been pursuing ways to put
that theory into practice.
By summer, when Californians switch on their air conditioners and the
state's electricity demand peaks, Dr. Rosenfeld hopes to have tens of
thousands of commercial buildings outfitted with new meters and vanilla
roofs. Though some energy-industry officials say that goal is far too
ambitious, Dr. Rosenfeld and others say his plan could reduce
electricity demand statewide by hundreds of megawatts or more, possibly
enough to avert some rolling blackouts.
"Art is a visionary," Loretta Lynch, president of the California
Public Utilities Commission, says of Dr. Rosenfeld. His present efforts,
she adds, could help produce "really spectacular savings."
Really spectacular savings would be really helpful if California is
to weather its electricity woes. Paying for high-priced wholesale power
already has left the state's two biggest investor-owned utilities, PG&E
Corp.'s Pacific Gas & Electric Co. and Edison International's Southern
California Edison unit, on the edge of bankruptcy and put the state on
the hook for billions of dollars in power purchases.
In an effort to help stem the drain, the state legislature is looking
to roughly double the state's $400 million in annual
conservation-related spending. Its kilowatt-cutting plans range from
rebates on energy-efficient refrigerators to radio spots urging citizens
to do their laundry after 7 p.m., when electricity demand is lower.
With California desperately trying to build electricity-savings
momentum, Dr. Rosenfeld is ready with some practical ideas, such as
"cool roofs," that he worked on for years at the University of
California at Berkeley. His new public role is something of a reprise
from a decade ago. Then, as a private citizen, he helped lead a largely
aborted statewide search for electricity savings, a commodity one of his
associates dubbed "negawatts." If pursued, the program could have left
California in a much better power position than it is now, but it
ultimately became a casualty of the deregulation push.
Since the mid-1980s, Dr. Rosenfeld has worked with the Heat Island
Group at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory to investigate ways
to reduce temperatures in urban areas. Researchers there found that a
white roof can be as much as 90 degrees cooler than a black one and
reduce the energy needed to air-condition a building by up to 40%.
Cooler roofs also mean cooler outside air. That could help reduce smog,
which forms more readily at higher temperatures.
Dr. Rosenfeld says white roofs are generally no more expensive than
dark ones. Nonetheless, the California Energy Commission is offering $10
million to encourage commercial building owners to switch. The
10-cents-per-square-foot subsidies would help cover 100 million square
feet of roof space. Dr. Rosenfeld says more state money might be coming
soon. And with about five billion square feet of commercial roofing in
California, he believes there's a lot more room for lightening to
The physicist is even more enthusiastic about digital electric
meters. Traditional meters, with little clock faces on the dials, only
keep a running total of electricity use, to be measured when a meter
reader comes calling. The new digital meters can track consumption
during intervals of a few minutes and transmit the reading to the
utility via phone lines.
Dr. Rosenfeld says that providing something close to "real-time"
metering is extremely important, because the cost of electricity varies
widely during the day, fluctuating with demand. Under deregulation,
retail rates in California have been largely frozen, so that consumers
don't see the soaring cost of electricity reflected in their bills.
However, he hopes that one day rates will reflect real-time costs and
that meters will be part of consumer efforts to regulate demand in
response to fluctuating prices.
Though he can't do much about the current retail rate freeze, Dr.
Rosenfeld has been pushing for programs to pay electricity customers for
voluntarily cutting their consumption during peak demand periods. In
keeping with his conservation-without-deprivation approach, he arranged
for pilot programs last summer at Building G and at another location.
During test periods in the summer, the thermostats in the buildings
were turned up four degrees and lighting reduced 30%. Most commercial
buildings tend to be overlit, and the laws of physics dictate that once
a building is cool, it will stay cool for a while. So, Dr. Rosenfeld
hoped the buildings' occupants wouldn't notice the changes. Indeed, they
didn't seem to. "It wasn't a problem," says Harlan Coomes, a senior
demand-side specialist for the Sacramento municipal utility who worked
on the test.
Armed with his data, Dr. Rosenfeld began proselytizing state and
utility-industry officials. With $40 million, he calculates, the state
could install 40,000 digital meters at large commercial sites. Combined
with financial incentives to get businesses to adjust their thermostats
and reduce their lighting when requested, he figures the program could
reduce statewide demand by perhaps as much as 2,000 megawatts during
peak hours, all without inflicting any hardships.
Partly spurred by Dr. Rosenfeld's efforts, the California Independent
System Operator, which runs the state's electricity grid, has begun
voluntary demand-reduction programs that pay electricity users for cuts.
Under one such program, commercial building owners who agree to reduce
their electricity use during peak hours on a tight-supply day are
reimbursed a set amount for every kilowatt-hour they save. "Art has been
very passionate in trying to get people to pay attention," says Don
Fuller, the ISO's director of client relations.
A not-so-brief overview of some of Dr. Rosenfeld's other passions can
be viewed on the California Energy Commission's Web site. Entitled "The
Art of Energy Efficiency" and initially prepared for an academic
publication, it runs 49 pages, including footnotes.
After earning a bachelor's degree in physics at age 18, he received
his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, studying under the legendary
physicist Enrico Fermi. He later moved to U.C. Berkeley, where he was
part of the research team that helped Prof. Luis Alvarez win the 1968
Nobel Prize for physics.
Dr. Rosenfeld was teaching and doing research in particle physics at
the Lawrence Berkeley lab in 1973 when his life took an abrupt turn. The
Arab oil embargo and subsequent energy crisis spurred him to begin
exploring energy-efficiency ideas. Initially, he thought those ideas
would occupy him for only a few months. Then it was a few years. "I
completely misjudged how interesting it would be," he says.
At Lawrence Berkeley, he helped assemble a diverse portfolio of
energy-efficiency research projects. Work at the lab contributed to the
development of electricity-saving compact fluorescent lights and
super-insulating windows. And Lawrence Berkley estimates that a research
investment of $70 million has produced billions of dollars of energy
Along the way, Dr. Rosenfeld met Amory Lovins, already well-known in
energy circles for his insistence that inexpensive efficiency
improvements could eliminate the need for tens of billions of dollars
worth of planned power plants. The two men helped persuade PG&E and
others that energy efficiency offered substantial potential savings. By
the early 1990s, California had established a program that allowed
utilities to charge higher rates if they agreed to pay rebates to
ratepayers who bought energy-efficient appliances or took other
In January 1991, PG&E announced plans to invest $2 billion over 10
years to reduce projected demand by 2,500 megawatts. Under the
initiative, electric customers got rebates for buying more efficient
appliances, lighting or air conditioners, and the utility established a
$7.5 million center to teach contractors and architects about new
energy-saving building designs.
PG&E recruited Messrs. Lovins and Rosenfeld for a $10 million project
to apply the best in energy-efficiency ideas to a half-dozen new or
existing buildings. "Amory was going all over the country spouting off"
about the potential for huge demand reductions, recalls Carl Weinberg,
the retired manager of research and development for San Francisco-based
Pacific Gas & Electric. "I said let's test it, [and] if you don't prove
this, I want Amory to shut up." The project produced electricity savings
in the range of 50%, and Mr. Lovins kept talking.
One of the project's most interesting discoveries was "that you could
get most of the savings with very basic off-the-shelf technologies" by
carefully integrating them, says Chris Chouteau, former head of
energy-efficiency activities at PG&E and now an outside consultant to
the company. For instance, more efficient room lighting not only uses
less electricity but produces less heat. That in turn reduces the amount
of power needed to air-condition a building. And, in newer,
better-insulated buildings, it might even reduce the size and expense of
the air-conditioning systems required to cool them.
Some argued that the rebates unfairly favored the well-to-do, who
could better afford to replace their old appliances. However, the effort
soon tripped over a much bigger obstacle. Under the California
deregulation plan, begun in the mid-1990s, conservation would largely be
taken out of the hands of utilities and left to the marketplace. Some
people who took part in the process say that years of progress were lost
in the transition. Utilities cut back their conservation efforts, but
new players didn't immediately take their place.
If utilities' energy-efficiency efforts hadn't been disrupted,
California's electricity demand could have been reduced by as much as
1,100 megawatts from its current level, according to one estimate from
the state's Energy Commission. By comparison, the recent rolling
blackouts in the state were caused by shortages of several hundred