The Watt, the Volt and the…Rosenfeld?

Mar 10, 2010 1:18pm

In science, units of energy are often named after people who did pioneering work in the field.  A watt of electricity is named for James Watt, who made the steam engine practical. The volt comes from Alessandro Volta, inventor of the first battery. Energy from heat is measured in joules, as in James Joule, the father of thermodynamics. We measure force in newtons (thank you, Isaac).

But what about energy efficiency? Well, er, let’s see….  When people talk about reducing America’s dependence on foreign oil, they suggest some move might be “like getting three million cars off the road” — but are those cars Ford Expeditions (14 miles per gallon) or Ford Fusion Hybrids (39 mpg)?

So 54 scientists and energy-conservation advocates have now published a paper in Environmental Research Letters, proposing the creation of…the Rosenfeld.  

The Rosenfeld?  Sure — one Rosenfeld would be the saving of 3 billion kilowatt-hours per year, the amount of electricity generated by a 500-megawatt power plant.  It gives the realm of energy conservation some precision that’s been lacking.
Why Rosenfeld?  The paper’s authors say that’s easy — to them, the guru of energy efficiency for 30 years has been Arthur H. Rosenfeld, an Alabama-born particle physicist, now in his 80s, who just retired from the California Energy Commission.  If you live there, his name may be familiar; he calculated, among other things, that if flat roofs were painted a reflective white instead of heat-absorbing black, Los Angeles could cut its demand for air conditioning by 20 percent.

“We realized that we were discovering (or had blundered into) a huge oil and gas field buried in our cities (buildings), factories, and roads (cars), which could be ‘extracted’ at pennies per gallon of gasoline equivalent,” he once wrote. 

Builders and power companies complained, but California has required since 2005 that new commercial buildings have white roofs.  The savings to the state’s consumers from his various initiatives have been estimated at $30 billion a year. 

“That’s the equivalent of taking 100 million cars off the roads,” wrote the Los Angeles Times — using one of those clunky comparisons that preceded the proposal of the Rosenfeld unit.

Depending on your point of view, this may sound like a lot of feel-good environmentalism — but Rosenfeld says he was motivated by the oil embargo of 1973, and the wish to keep the economy moving despite an energy shortage.

The University of California, Davis, honored him yesterday by endowing a new professorship in his name. It put out this statement: “With the precision of a particle physicist and the practicality of a child of the Great Depression, Rosenfeld made his point to politicians, power-industry moguls, policy makers, engineers and average citizens: ‘The cheapest energy is what you don’t use.’” (Arthur H. Rosenfeld photo courtesy U.S. Department of Energy.)

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