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Physicist Takes Energy Efficiency From Theory to Practice

Eighty-year-old particle physicist Arthur Rosenfeld began his career slamming atomic nuclei together at the University of California at Berkeley. Then he moved to a new job: working with refrigerators and light bulbs. That second job, he says, has really paid off to the tune of $800 billion in energy savings from inventions and innovations in his lab. They did that by making refrigerators more efficient. He explains that the appliances used to consume 2000 kilowatt hours of energy a year. "At today's prices," he says, "[that] would cost about $250 a year. [Now we're down] to 450 [kilowatt hours a year]."

You can even hear the difference. Refrigerators from 30 years ago are very noisy. "The 1973 refrigerator was actually a remarkably light and cheap piece of junk," Rosenfeld observes. "And the motors were incredibly inefficient." So Rosenfeld got to work, and the sound of his refrigerator, and all American refrigerators today, is quiet.

Rosenfeld notes, "The motors have risen from 30% efficiency to probably 90% efficiency; we have better insulation, and the electricity use has fallen to one quarter what it would have been in 1973." His shiny new refrigerator, bigger than the 1973 version, with crushed ice, cubed ice, door alarms and water filters, uses one fourth of the energy compared to that small, old thing that just kept food cold. That's a saving of $200 a year for every refrigerator.

That's pretty amazing, but it's not yet $800 billion of energy.

Art Rosenfeld also does windows. In his very cozy breakfast nook just off the kitchen, with the hot light of the mid-day California sun streaming through the glass, he explains, "We worked very hard on the thin film of a semi-conductor, which is perfectly transparent to visible light, but which is a perfect reflector to heat." The sun-baked glass feels cool to the touch. The light's coming in, but the heat is staying outside. The air-conditioning is off, and the room this mid-summer day, is quite cool. In the winter, this same window glass will keep the heat inside the house.

"You can put windows on a new house, which cuts the heating bill by 30%," Rosenfeld says, adding, "[you] are indeed saving more oil every year than comes out of Prudhoe Bay." The fields at Prudhoe Bay Alaska are America's major domestic source of oil. So the energy savings are really adding up now.

And Dr. Rosenfeld's lab has done even more. He ticks them off: "Compact fluorescent lamps are saving another $5 billion a year. Better programs for designing buildings are saving like $10 billion a year. Each one of those have now pretty much saturated building standards around the world. The savings even in the United States are simply astounding."

But forget about money for a moment. It's the energy savings, the lack of pollution, the decreased -- but still very real -- dependence on foreign oil, that count. And Rosenfeld says those gains will need to keep pace with the growing number of energy users in the world. "We've done well, but we're only one half or one quarter of potential savings if we really took it seriously."

This summer, the U.S. Department of Energy awarded its most prestigious prize, the Enrico Fermi Award, to Art Rosenfeld. The prize was $375,000. But the physicist says the recognition and gratitude from the community was his real reward.

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