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Arthur Rosenfeld dead; experimental physicist was 90

President Barack Obama awards the National Medal of

President Barack Obama awards the National Medal of Technology and Innovation to Arthur H. Rosenfeld in a ceremony at the White House on Feb. 1, 2013, in Washington, D.C. Rosenfeld died on Jan. 27, 2017, at the age of 90. Credit: Getty Images / Brendan Hoffman

Arthur Rosenfeld, an experimental physicist who set aside his decades-long study of subatomic particles to help design energy-efficiency standards and technologies, reducing greenhouse-gas emissions and saving everyday Americans billions of dollars each year, died Jan. 27 at his home in Berkeley, California. He was 90.

The cause was complications from pneumonia, said a daughter, Anne Hansen.

Rosenfeld was “fueled by a passion to wring the most out of every kilowatt,” the Los Angeles Times reported in 2010. As a researcher at the University of California at Berkeley, he helped his adopted home state establish some of the country’s first, and most stringent, energy-efficiency standards.

For three decades, however, his research was limited to the study and discovery of subatomic particles, for which he used a special device known as a hydrogen bubble chamber.

It was only during the oil crisis of the mid-1970s that Rosenfeld turned to the field of energy efficiency, viewing it as a way for the United States to avoid future oil-embargo threats from the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Countries.

While preparing to go home one Friday night in November 1973, dreading the seemingly inevitable half-hour wait at the gas pump, he turned off his office lights — a habit he developed as a child during the Depression — and began calculating the energy savings that his office would achieve if everyone else did the same.

Hunting for light switches on his 20-office floor, he decided his laboratory “should do something about conservation,” as he later put it. He began leading research efforts to calculate the savings of simple acts such as turning off the lights — 100 gallons of natural gas saved per weekend at his office alone, he calculated — and getting rid of inefficient refrigerators and home appliances.

At a meeting with California Gov. Jerry Brown a few years later, Rosenfeld explained that if the state prohibited the most inefficient refrigerators, it could avoid building a controversial power plant known as Sundesert.

Brown agreed, and in 1977, drawing from Rosenfeld’s research, he enacted what are considered to be the country’s first efficiency requirements for appliances. The standards, set initially only for refrigerators and freezers, were followed one year later by an energy-efficient building code that aimed to reduce residential energy usage by 80 percent.

Federal regulations established similar standards for home appliances in 1987.

At the same time, Rosenfeld and a team of researchers at Berkeley’s Center for Building Science developed several revolutionary technologies such as a coating for window glass that allows homes to trap heat in the winter and keep it out in the summer; computer programs that analyze buildings’ energy usage; and, most recently, a reflective roof design that aids with cooling.

The efficiency standards that resulted from his research had a similarly striking effect. In what efficiency advocates and some scientists hail as “the Rosenfeld effect,” per capita energy usage in California has hardly grown since the mid-1970s — despite a seemingly endless proliferation of household gadgets, appliances and electricity-hogging televisions.

In the United States as a whole, per capita energy usage has more than doubled.

Rosenfeld faced early criticism from utility companies such as Pacific Gas & Electric, which suggested to Rosenfeld’s laboratory boss that the onetime nuclear physicist was unqualified to study energy efficiency and ought to be fired. He was also sometimes blasted by appliance manufacturers and consumers, who were wary of products’ becoming more expensive.

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