LBL Energy and Environment Division History

November 5, 1993

By Jeffery Kahn,

Twenty years after its founding, staff, alumni, and friends of the Energy and Environment Division gathered at a Anniversary Forum held Monday (November 1, 1993) to celebrate the division's past and to ponder its future.

Looking back, much of the past two decades could be described as an uphill battle against conventional wisdom that, today, is paying extraordinary dividends to the nation.

During that time, more energy-efficient windows, lighting, and building designs, and appliance energy standards developed by the E & E Division have saved the country billions in energy costs. Over the next two decades as these products saturate the market, the energy saved should offset the energy output of all the nuclear power plants in the U.S.

The division developed the first methods to understand how to exploit underground geothermal resources and began looking at how to store nuclear waste underground, ultimately spinning off this expertise into what today is the Earth Sciences Division. Its fusion energy program was spun off into today's Accelerator and Fusion Research Division.

Division scientists were instrumental in discovering the threat of indoor radon and in devising countermeasures. Major programs were launched in international energy studies, the study of trace substances in the atmosphere and in indoor air. New means were developed to detect and cleanup environmental contaminants.

"This Division has really put LBL on the map in a new way," LBL Director Charles Shank told the Forum audience. "E & E should assume even more importance in the future, showing the way in providing value from the fundamental science we do here."

Former LBL Director Andrew Sessler recalled the beginnings dating from his time as a staff physicist. "I guess it all started with a memo I wrote in 1968. I called for scientists at the Rad Lab to meet and discuss what could we do about the deterioration of the environment. About 15 of us met but ultimately, it was Jack Hollander who ran with the ball."

Hollander recalled the skepticism at the Lab but also the support of Laboratory Director Ed McMillan who set up an Office of Environmental Research. Hollander said funding was scarce but then two things happened. The Atomic Energy Commission, which funded the Lab but had not been interested in the program, lost a 1970 legal battle and was ordered to perform environmental studies prior to the construction of new nuclear power plants, thus putting the AEC into the environmental research business. And then in October 1973, Egypt attacked Israel, and an Arab oil boycott created havoc in America.

On November 1, 1973, Sessler became director of the Lab and on his first day, established the Energy and Environment Division. New programs were created and funding grew quickly. After one year, 56 projects were underway. In the second year, the division entered the field of conservation and energy efficiency led by Art Rosenfeld and Sam Berman.

Bob Budnitz, the second division director from 1975-78, described the continuing skepticism about the new division. "Let's face it," he said. "There were many, many people here who felt that what we were doing wasn't physics and it wasn't engineering and we shouldn't be doing it. We had a siege mentality and a can-do spirit and we did what we had to get the job done. We were the first division to hire significant numbers of women in professional positions. And, we grew so fast that it was like riding the crest of a tsunami."

During the Forum, dozens of current and former E & E Division staffers described this boom in environmental research and the near crash that occurred when Ronald Reagan became President. Reagan's aides attempted to eliminate many of the federal government's conservation, environmental, and renewable energy programs.

Mark Levine described the Division's efforts during this time on the development of national appliance energy standards. Levine said that the national standards now in effect are the most effective energy efficiency program in the world, now saving half a quad a year in energy. Despite the desire of the appliance industry for national standards, the Reagan Administration continued to oppose them yet the advocates ultimately prevailed.

"In many ways," said Levine, "the story of the appliance standards is the story of the division. When thwarted in one direction, we have managed to find another. Somehow, we are going to get the job done."

Elton Cairns, division director since 1978, told the Forum that the Division came out of the Reagan and Bush years intact, preserving most of its programs while undertaking a number of new initiatives.

"Somehow," said Cairns, "we made it through the 1980s. During the Reagan years, the names energy and environment were deemed so unpopular that we even changed the division name to Applied Science. Today, we have returned to our original name."

Steve Wiel from E & E's Washington office said the division could grow significantly during the Clinton Administration. "It's possible we may have another tsunami building in Washington. We don't see the money yet but," said Wiel, "we may still. Environment, not energy, will be the driving force behind much of this new work."