Leon Schipper, Physicist and Iconoclast, Dies at 64

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Leon J. Schipper, a physicist whose passion for data led him to question the value of popular energy policies, like government subsidies for ethanol and for electric cars and the "cash for clunkers" program, died Tuesday in Berkeley, Calif. He was 64.

The cause was pancreatic cancer, according to Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory, where he had worked for more than 20 years.

Dr. Schipper, who was known as Lee, held a bachelor's degree in music and a Ph.D. in astrophysics, both from Berkeley, but he specialized in energy efficiency and transportation energy and was often a critic of the conventional wisdom.

For example, in his view the 2009 "cash for clunkers" program -- which offered rebates of up to $4,500 to people who bought a new car that got better mileage than their old one -- did little to save energy. In many cases, he found, buyers were using the rebate money to buy something bigger and more high-powered than they would have otherwise. "The effect is inverse of what we were hoping for," he said.

Analyzing the Chevy Volt, the new sedan that is supposed to go 40 miles on batteries and then use a gasoline engine, he calculated that because of inefficiencies in electricity generation, its fuel economy was no better than a Toyota Prius hybrid running on gasoline, while its price was roughly double that of the Prius.

"Does the extra $20,000 justify the overall fuel and possible carbon dioxide savings?" he asked. "If two drivers switched to Prius, the overall savings of oil likely would be larger than one driver switching to a Volt, for the same money."

Ethanol, he complained, probably did not reduce emissions of greenhouse gases by much, and would never become a major source of transportation energy unless it could be competitive with oil on an unsubsidized basis.

John P. Holdren, President Obama's science adviser, said that when he set up the Energy and Resources Program at the University of California, Berkeley, in 1973, Dr. Schipper was his first hire.

"He was one of the first people to point out that people don't want to consume energy," Dr. Holdren said, "they want to consume energy services, like transportation, comfortable rooms, cold beer and so forth. And that there was an enormous variation in the amount of energy needed to perform those services."

In addition to his work in the field of energy, Dr. Schipper mastered the haiku-like prose of letters to the editor, which requires making complicated points in about three sentences, and had 15 of them published in The New York Times over a 36-year period, mostly on energy.

In one letter in July 2008, he argued that the government should help the poor insulate their homes, rather than helping pay their energy bills. "Shelling out money every year for more waste is not cool," he wrote. "Why not provide comfort in the long run instead?"

Leon Jay Schipper was born April 7, 1947, in Santa Monica, Calif.

In 1976, between the first and second international oil shocks, he published an influential paper in the journal Science pointing out that Sweden consumed far less energy per unit of economic activity than the United States did. The paper helped establish his reputation as an energy analyst.

He was a Fulbright scholar at the Beijer Institute of Ecological Economics in Stockholm in 1977-78, and was fluent in Swedish and also spoke French and German, his family said.

From 1995 to 2001, Dr. Schipper was a senior scientist at the International Energy Agency in Paris. He was the founder of the World Resources Institute's center for sustainable transport, called Embarq. At his death, Dr. Schipper was a project scientist for the Global Metropolitan Studies Initiative at the University of California, Berkeley, and senior research engineer for the Precourt Energy Efficiency Center at Stanford University.

Dr. Schipper is survived by his wife, Agneta; two daughters, Lisa Schipper of Berkeley and Julia Schipper of Washington; and a sister, Amy Schipper-Howe, of Boise, Idaho.

Dr. Schipper, who played the vibraphone, led an amateur musical group that played at scientific conferences on reducing the impact of global warming. It was called Lee Schipper and the Mitigators.


This article originally appeared in The New York Times .


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