White Roofs, Vampire Loads, and the Quest for Efficiency

Art Rosenfeld retired last week from the California Energy Commission. What kind of difference did he make? How does $30 billion/year savings sound?

White Roof

You may not know who Art Rosenfeld is, but his work has probably made a difference in your life. He certainly made a difference in mine. A while ago, I read a piece he had co-written for Technology Review about the energy-efficiency benefits of white rooftops, so when the time came for me to replace the roof on my house, I took a chance and opted for the white “energy efficient” shingles.


As a result, my summertime electricity bills dropped dramatically.

Rosenfeld was, until his retirement, the head of the California Energy Commission, a state organization that shapes the rules surrounding electricity production and use in California. During Rosenfeld’s 30-year tenure at the CEC, he made energy efficiency the overriding driver of regulatory policy, creating rules for everything from refrigerators (which now use only a quarter of the power that their less-fancy 1970s ancestors did) to “vampire loads” (the power still consumed by devices when turned off) to–most recently–the power consumed by flat screen televisions, which by some reports now account for nearly 10% of the power consumption in California.

Art Rosenfeld

And in doing so, is directly responsible for this remarkable fact: despite an explosion of consumer electronics, mobile gadgets, and personal computers of all types, energy use per-capita in California is the same as it was 30 years ago. In the rest of the U.S., per-capita energy consumption has continued to climb, albeit more slowly than it might have, as more states come to adopt California’s energy rules. And these rules make a difference:


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. […]

[T]hese 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.

According to the CEC, the new flat-screen TV regulations should reduce energy costs in California by $8 billion over the next decade.

This helps to drive home Rosenfeld’s key point: efficiency is the cheapest source of energy. The regulations assembled by the CEC have added about 2-3 cents per kilowatt-hour to the price of electricity in California. According to energy specialist Joe Romm, that’s about one-fifth of the cost of energy from the new power plants that would have been built had the efficiency rules not gone into effect.

Light Switch

Now, you may not live in California, and the energy rules where you live may not come close to those promulgated by the CEC. You can still take advantage of them, however.


Manufacturers subject to California Energy Commission regulations typically make noises about how the latest rules will mean the death of their industries, then turn around and start innovating. And while the use of the most energy-efficient appliances and building materials may not be mandated where you are, chances are you can still get a hold of them. When you need to replace your refrigerator, your TV, your roof, or the other various parts of your household infrastructure, you can choose to go with more efficient options.

It’s a small thing, a simple choice. But simple choices matter. And, over time, can become transformative.


White Roof by Jamais Cascio, Creative Commons License
rosenfeld_150x192-2.jpg by California Energy Commission
Light Switch by Jamais Cascio, Creative Commons License