Arthur Rosenfeld shows a lamp in his home developed at the Lawrence Berkeley… (Peter DaSilva / For The Times )
Reporting from Sacramento — When octogenarian Arthur H. Rosenfeld vacates his utilitarian office at the California Energy Commission this week, one of his final tasks might seem of little consequence: He'll turn off the lights.
But that simple act -- some would say compulsion -- has transformed California into a world leader in energy efficiency.
California homes are loaded with personal computers, widescreen TVs, iPods, PlayStations, air conditioners, massive refrigerators, hot tubs and swimming pool pumps. Despite that, Golden State residents today use about the same amount of electricity per capita that they did 30 years ago.
For that, they can largely thank Rosenfeld, a slight, bespectacled nuclear physicist fueled by a passion to wring the most out of every kilowatt. Polite and affable, with a knack for making science understandable to people who couldn't screw in a lightbulb, Rosenfeld, starting in the 1970s, provided California energy regulators the data they needed to enact some of the toughest efficiency standards in the world.
New homes and buildings were required to be better insulated and fitted with energy-wise lighting, heating and cooling systems. Appliances had to be designed to use less power. Utilities were forced to motivate their customers to use less electricity.
The principle, Rosenfeld said, was simple: Conserving energy is cheaper and smarter than building power plants.
Not surprisingly, those rules were attacked by business groups as bureaucratic job killers. Rosenfeld, who received his doctorate from the University of Chicago, was called unqualified by critics at Pacific Gas & Electric Co., one of California's largest utilities.
Yet these mandates have yielded about $30 billion annually in energy savings for California consumers. They've eliminated air pollution that's the equivalent of taking 100 million cars off the roads. They have been copied by states and countries worldwide. California's gains are so closely linked to Rosenfeld that they've been dubbed the Rosenfeld Effect in energy efficiency circles, where the 83-year-old has taken on rock star status.
U.S. Energy Secretary Steven Chu, who appeared on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show" last year, told host Jon Stewart that Rosenfeld was "one of my local heroes" for his work on promoting the use of reflective white roofs to combat climate change. Such roofs have been mandatory on new commercial buildings in California since 2005.
"Here's a very distinguished physicist, who said the energy problem is so huge that I have to change my career," Chu said in an interview with The Times. "He set an example for me as later in life I got concerned about the energy problem."
Climate change experts say more heroes will be needed after last month's disappointing climate talks in Copenhagen, when major nations failed to sign a concrete agreement on carbon reduction. Rosenfeld is seen as an example of how dogged persistence at the local level can turn the impossible into the achievable.
"He shows cheerfulness at a time when everyone is warning that the sky is falling by saying that we can do this if we just put our minds to work," said V. John White, executive director of the Center for Energy Efficiency and Renewable Technologies in Sacramento. "He's influenced . . . utilities and policy managers around the world. . . . He's lived to see his ideas go from the fanciful to the mainstream. He's a prophet in his own time."
All the praise is a little embarrassing for the self-effacing Rosenfeld, whose penchant for conservation came early. Born in 1926 in Birmingham, Ala., he spent his early years in New Orleans as the Great Depression gripped the nation. His father was an expert in sugar cane cultivation, a vocation that took the family to Egypt when Rosenfeld was 6 years old.
It was there that the child learned that resources weren't infinite. His parents, budget-minded Southerners, drove tiny cars to save on gas andinsisted he turn off lights when leaving a room. These were familiar practices to the European children who attended his Western-style school.
"Electricity wasn't dirt cheap in Europe and certainly not in Egypt," Rosenfeld said. "Europeans only used half as much energy per dollar of GDP [gross domestic product], and it was clear that their lifestyle was as good as ours."
Rosenfeld returned to the United States to get his bachelor's degree in industrial physics at Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He taught radar operators at Navy Pier in Chicago during World War II, then went on to study particle physics at the University of Chicago under the legendary Enrico Fermi, who built the world's first nuclear reactor under the university's football stadium.