Energy-efficiency gurus want to create the "Rosenfeld" as a simple unit of energy savings.

It may not roll off the tongue like the ohm, watt or volt, but it would follow in their tradition. Many call Arthur Rosenfeld, a recently retired member of the California Energy Commission, the "godfather of energy efficiency." One Rosenfeld would represent saving 3 billion kilowatt-hours per year—the same amount generated by a 500-megawatt coal-run power plant.

Fifty-four researchers signed the document in Environmental Research Letters that proposed the metric.

The letter called for a measurement that would help regular people visualize efficiency's massive potential, but also be as accurate as possible.

Supporters often speak of efficiency policies as "removing millions of cars from the road" or "avoiding the construction of a coal-fired power plant." The letter aimed to standardize the latter in the Rosenfeld: It specified what kind of coal plant and at what efficiency it runs.

A 2008 study by the American Physical Society found U.S. homes could save 600 million kilowatts per year by 2030. That would be 200 Rosenfelds.

In a 2006 paper, two Princeton University researchers, Stephen Pacala and Robert Socolow, proposed a "stabilization triangle": the difference between flattening global emissions and letting them rise. They divided the triangle into seven "wedges," each of which corresponded to a carbon-reducing action.

How to get to 210,000 Rosenfelds?

The Environmental Research Letters document said one wedge comes out to about 30,000 Rosenfelds. Leveling global emissions, then, would be 210,000 Rosenfelds.

Rosenfeld first learned of energy efficiency during the 1970s oil embargo. His training was in particle physics, but on a research tour in Europe, he found Europeans used half the energy Americans did for the same standard of living.

"I observed that my colleagues did not freeze in the dark," he wrote in a 1999 autobiography. "They did, however, drive smaller cars and turn off lights in unoccupied rooms and buildings."

This would become the basis of "Rosenfeld's Law," that the amount of energy needed to produce a dollar in the economy drops about 1 percent every year. The economy, that is, didn't have to use more energy in order to grow.

When he returned to the United States, he and some fellow researchers began to investigate energy waste.

"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 wrote.

In 1974, Rosenfeld founded the Center for Building Science at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and began developing energy-saving technologies such as ballasts for light bulbs and low-leakage windows. Today, he wrote, the technologies the center developed save Americans roughly $30 billion a year.

Rosenfeld also led advocacy in California to establish building codes, appliance standards and utility programs like "decoupling."

Burning the midnight oil, and saving some

Lee Schipper, who worked at Lawrence Berkeley for 17 years, remembers when Rosenfeld took a trip to France in the late 1970s. Suddenly, the building's electricity use jumped.

"Turned out it was ART who was working late at night, and turned off all the lights when he went home," Schipper, now a project scientist in global metropolitan studies at the University of California, Berkeley, said in an e-mail. "When he was absent, the lights stayed on."

Some aren't so sure the Rosenfeld addresses the deeper issue in climate science and policy: making it easier to understand.

Would a Rosenfeld by any other name be more effective?

Anthony Leiserowitz, who directs Yale University's Project on Climate Change, doubted the Rosenfeld would clarify climate for most people, because it doesn't contain an intuitive understanding of the issue.

"There's nothing in the name 'Rosenfeld' that tells you anything about coal-fired power plants or how energy's produced. It's just somebody's name," he said.

Leiserowitz said, a group that wants to limit greenhouse gas concentrations in the atmosphere to 350 parts per million, has the same issue: "The problem is, there's nothing inherently in the number that helps you understand it."

Leiserowitz researches public opinion on climate change, and he frequently finds misunderstandings -- such as thinking it's a problem with the ozone layer. He said that since people don't think much about the upper atmosphere, they can come to rational, albeit scientifically incorrect, conclusions.

He saw a more successful label in the "ozone hole."

"Think about it metaphorically here ... if you have a hole in your roof, what are you going to do? You're going to go patch it," he said. "The term itself carries with it the requisite solution."

Reprinted from Climatewire with permission from Environment & Energy Publishing, LLC., 202-628-6500