Engineer Greenberg Lives Up to His Name With Energy-Efficient Lifestyle

Photo: Steve Greenberg, a Berkeley Lab engineer known for his green lifestyle, shows off part of the system he uses at home to save energy.
Evan Walbridge/Staff
Steve Greenberg, a Berkeley Lab engineer known for his green lifestyle, shows off part of the system he uses at home to save energy.

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About a month ago, an e-mail was sent out to the energy technology scientists of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory instigating a little competition to see who could use the least amount of energy in their homes.

Steve Greenberg won the contest before it even started.

Dressed in a yellow windbreaker and jeans, Greenberg, an engineer in the lab's Environmental Energy Technologies Division, is prepared for the hilly descent to his North Berkeley home, which he makes on his bike every day and has done every day since he was a graduate student studying energy and resources at UC Berkeley and working at the lab 28 years ago.

"It takes me about 20 minutes to get to work, 10 minutes home - isn't gravity amazing?" he said in an e-mail. "At about 700 feet of climbing, 250 trips a year and 28 years, that's around four million feet of climbing or the vertical equivalent of over 100 trips up Mount Everest from sea level."

And that trip happens no matter what the sky is doing, whether it is spewing rain, hail or blistering sunlight. Greenberg is prepared for all the elements, with a rain suit, a change of clothes at work and lights for riding in the dark.

Greenberg became the avid biker that he is today - and gained the fascination with energy efficiency and the environment that defines his work at the labs - when he was in junior high during the energy crisis of the 1970s.

It was a little more difficult to be energy efficient when common household appliances like refrigerators used several times more energy than they do today. But now, Greenberg and his wife, Liz Varnhagen, have made up for lost years by reducing their energy usage to 3,000 kilowatt-hours a year, while the average American family uses about 15,000. In fact, Greenberg's house produces a surplus of 4,000 kilowatt-hours a year, which their electric company, PG&E, then transfers to other households.

Greenberg's house, fondly dubbed the Ordway Solar Power Plant for the two photovoltaic systems that cover the roof and use solar panels to harness the sun's energy, is not an anomaly in the neighborhood of 1930s-era homes. Greenberg has counted 37 households in the neighborhood with photovoltaic systems and 12 with solar water heating systems.

"My wife and I live in a place that generates substantially more electricity than it uses," he said. "We have an electric car, which we don't drive that much because we bike most places. We both bike as part of our commute We're fairly meticulous about eliminating energy leakages."

Every Sunday, Greenberg travels from room to room in his house, clipboard in hand, to record the energy consumption from each of the 12 meters that are attached to various appliances, from the washing machine to his electric car charger to the toaster oven. Most of these appliances, even the most efficient, use at least one or two watts even when off, so Greenberg installed switches that stop electricity flow to the appliances. He also weighs the garbage and counts how many loads of dishes and laundry are done throughout the course of the week so as to have a better idea of the house's carbon footprint.

In the winter, when many families in the Bay Area use more electricity than usual to heat poorly-insulated homes, Greenberg and Varnhagen pile on more clothes, donning wool sweaters and down booties, heating only as much space as is necessary with a space heater.

"He's a little more extreme than me," Varnhagen said of Greenberg. "If I'm going to be home on a cold day, I'll go out to a coffee shop - a warm coffee shop."

Greenberg said his next project is an underground water cistern to collect rainwater to use in the house.

"I think it's important to pay attention to what the best you can do is," said James McMahon, a colleague of Greenberg's at the lab. "I think Steve provides a formidable example. He lives a very earth-friendly lifestyle. People can do some of the things he does, and not everyone will do everything, but it's useful to have those examples."


Claire Perlman covers research and ideas. Contact her at [email protected]

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