S. David Freeman – A Friend and A Visionary Force of Nature (1926 – 2020)

I know of no single human that can claim a greater impact in shaping progressive energy policy than my friend and mentor S. David Freeman.

Stephen Smith | May 21, 2020 | Climate Change, Tennessee, Utilities
Known to many as the “Green Cowboy,” Freeman spent much of his 94 years championing renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation policies and initiatives that have left lasting marks on the energy industry landscape across the country.

Throughout his long career championing the public power model, David Freeman advised three presidents and led three of the largest public utilities in the United States, including the New York Power Authority, the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power, and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) where he pioneered a massive energy conservation program and contributed to early work with solar energy and electric vehicles.

Earlier this year, Freeman formally joined SACE as a Senior Energy Advisor, bringing seven decades of experience in leadership positions across the energy production landscape of the United States to help promote our shared goals of a cleaner, safer, healthier future. Dave and I had been collaborating for three decades in support of SACE’s ongoing efforts to get TVA back on the right track as a public power entity designed to best serve its customers across seven states.

On May 12, Freeman died from complications resulting from a heart attack. Since that day I have been continually reflecting on his larger-than-life impact on the energy and utility landscape of our country, and his tenacious dedication to clean technologies like electric transportation, solar power generation, energy efficiency, and, above all, consumer protections. Dave helped shape my view of what is possible in articulating a better vision of how we produce and consume energy; a vision infused with hope and innovation on what is possible, always scanning the horizon for new ideas and new ways to make the flow of energy a net positive for humanity and the planet we call home.

David Freeman was a visionary force of nature, I’m proud to have collaborated with him over the years in support of our common goals of a cleaner, greener world. Dave taught me that most utilities will first tell you ‘no’ on advancing many clean energy policies, but never take no for an answer. We will miss his leadership and tenacity and will honor him by carrying his vision forward in our work.

I know of no single human that can claim a greater impact in shaping progressive energy policy than my friend and mentor S. David Freeman.

Dave and I working the media in Memphis Nov 2017.

Our mutual friend Arjun Makhijani at the Institute for Energy and Environmental Research has published a thoughtful tribute to Dave connecting historical dots that many may not know and chronicling some of his achievements and personal memories, which I’d like to share in its entirety here as another memorial to the “Green Cowboy.”

Remembering Dave Freeman – Green Cowboy, Pioneer of U.S. Energy Policy

It was 1970. Dave Freeman had transitioned from being an energy advisor in Johnson’s White House to Nixon’s. At one of our lunches since he had moved to Washington, D.C. after retiring as the Chairman of the Port of Los Angeles, he recounted a conversation with John Ehrlichman, Nixon’s assistant for domestic policy:

“Ehrlichman told me ‘Dave, you had better get out of here. Things are going to get very hot and nasty in the coming campaign [to re-elect Nixon]. This is no place for a Democrat like you.’”

Dave found a most interesting and, as it turned out, historic exit. He convinced the Ford Foundation to give him four million dollars (about twenty-five million in today’s money) to establish the Energy Policy Project within the Foundation. It would approach energy policy comprehensively; among other things, it would explore how much of energy supply could be replaced by energy efficiency. The project would do its work and then disband. He asked for, and got, a free hand, though he did have a Board of Advisors, which included corporate chieftains like Donald Burnham, the Chairman of Westinghouse; luminaries from academia, like Carl Kaysen, Director of the Institute of Advanced Study and Harvey Brooks, Dean of Engineering and Applied Sciences at Harvard; and famously, William Tavoulareas, the president of Mobil Oil Company.

It was widely believed at the time that the energy consumption growth and economic growth were closely coupled. Dave, an engineer and a lawyer, had other ideas. He thought the same economic growth could be achieved at various levels of energy growth, including zero energy growth, which was a truly revolutionary concept at the time. At the other end of the country, as a doctoral student at the University of California, Berkeley, I had discovered, with extensive but back-of-the-envelope calculations done for a two-credit seminar, that the common wisdom about closely coupled economic and energy growth seemed to be wrong. A much bigger economy could be supported by the energy that the United States was consuming. Dave, or one of his staff, noticed that work, which was published with my academic advisor Allan Lichtenberg, and read into the Congressional Record by the maverick senator from Alaska, Mike Gravel. That is how, I, with my wild head of hair and my freshly minted doctorate in nuclear fusion, met Dave and moved to Washington, D.C. in November 1972.

His staffing idea was as gutsy as his substantive concept. Until the early 1970s, U.S. energy policy was mainly oil policy. But Dave felt oil companies had far too much influence, not only on energy but on political life in general. Indeed, much of the world’s politics was then dominated by what was known as the “Seven Sisters” – the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company, Shell, Standard Oil of New York, Standard Oil of New Jersey, Standard Oil of California, Gulf Oil, and Texaco. A major example was the U.S.-British orchestrated 1953 overthrow of the elected Iranian government of the time — an act designed to protect the interests of the Anglo-Iranian Oil Company that still haunts world politics and security.

Dave wanted his staff to be as sharp with numbers and analysis as any petroleum engineer drilling for oil; but he wanted open minds, free of oil industry cobwebs. He gave his (mostly) young staff a great deal of leeway. Besides the iconoclastic internal work, we also got to manage large external grants. In three years, the project published about twenty books on energy policy that covered the waterfront from economic modeling to demographics to industrial energy efficiency to nuclear proliferation to energy aspects of foreign policy to the energy implications of recycling steel and aluminum. I had the special privilege as a staff member to do my own research project (in addition to my normal work), not related to U.S. energy. That research was published in 1975 as Energy and Agriculture in the Third World; it achieved recognition in its own right, though in a rather specialized niche in Washington.

By the time of the October 1973 Arab Oil Embargo, occasioned by the Arab-Israel War (aka the Yom Kippur War), the core technical analysis was mostly done; the main features of the energy scenarios were clear. Dave decided we would do an urgent preliminary report. Working day and night, the team did it in two months. Exploring Energy Choices, published in January 1974, became a selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club, which distributed half a million copies and put the Energy Policy Project on the Washington map.

The Deputy Director of the project was going to send out for chicken sandwiches for the celebratory lunch. When I protested that the staff deserved better, Dave let me order it — and gave me no instruction as to the budget. I called one of the best French restaurants in town – alas, I have forgotten its name; but I do remember we had a 1966 St. Emilion grand cru to accompany the boeuf bourguignon served on fine china by liveried restaurant staff in our very own conference room at our very memorable address: 1776 Massachusetts Avenue, Northwest. Dave was shocked by the tab but said not a word to me then. Years later he told me he decided to send the invoice quietly along to headquarters, figuring it would not be noticed as unusual in the Foundation’s Executive Suite (headed at the time by McGeorge Bundy). It wasn’t. Among the project’s staff, I am remembered not so much for my technical work but for ordering that lunch. Dave liked to share that story too.

Dave sent our final report, A Time to Choose: America’s Energy Future, to every governor, among others. It caught the eye of the Governor of Georgia, a nuclear engineer named Jimmy Carter. It became, as Dave wrote later, “the foundation of President Carter’s energy policy.”

In the years that followed Dave, first as a senior Senate staffer and then as part of the Carter administration, shepherded some of our most important recommendations into policy and law. Our recommendation on vehicle fuel economy became the Corporate Average Fuel Economy regulations, better known as the CAFE standards. Intensified renewable energy research and development had been one of our energy supply recommendations. The Solar Energy Research Institute had been authorized in law in 1974; it was broadened to become the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in 1977. The 1978 Public Utilities Regulatory Policies Act (PURPA), which opened up utility-owned transmission and distribution wires to non-utility power, also had its roots in A Time to Choose. The greatest impact of that law lay far into the future. It has allowed large amounts of non-utility power — solar, wind, co-generation — to be carried (for a charge) on utility-owned wires.

In a few short years, Dave Freeman, the Green Cowboy, had gone from being an obscure White House staffer with a Tennessee drawl to being the visionary progenitor of energy policy in the United States — energy policy that really was public policy, and not dressed up petroleum company policy. His vision that energy growth could be decoupled from economic growth became a reality: from 1973 until the heyday of the Reagan years in the mid-1980s, the economy grew at an average annual rate of 2.8 percent; energy use growth was essentially zero — less than 0.1 percent a year.

A large part of the work of the Energy Policy Project was informed by Dave’s public power ethos and the notion that, while private capital had its place, the influence of corporate power, and especially oil company power, on public policy needed to be curbed. And our report said so. Tavoulareas thought the project had greatly exceeded its charter — and said so. But Dave was a man to write his own charter. That gave those of us on his staff the chance to be a part of the history he made.

In 1978, President Carter appointed Dave to be the Chair of the Tennessee Valley Authority. He loved the idea and reality of public power, in a way that only someone who grew up in Tennessee during the Depression could. TVA had built dams and power plants and irrigation canals; it had lighted up the back roads of the country. The New Deal, spearheaded by a government determined to alleviate unemployment and suffering, had shown that government could stand up to corporate power be an enlightened force for the public good. In contrast, Wall Street had largely opposed FDR’s proposals to hike income tax rates and his abandonment of the gold standard; the latter action was the monetary foundation of the New Deal.

He continued to make history at the TVA. By 1978, the agency had become something of an adjunct to the nuclear industry. Fourteen nuclear power reactors were being built at the same time. Dave asked me to come to Tennessee and help him put an energy efficiency program in place. He sent me to the power planning division in Chattanooga. It was soon very obvious to me that the division was not facing up to the fundamental changes in the energy landscape since 1973. Nationally, the growth rate of electricity was only about half of what it had been. On top of that, TVA was facing the loss of its largest single user, the federal government’s World War II uranium enrichment plant in Oak Ridge, Tennessee, which was to be shut down. None of that had been properly factored in.

I reported to Dave that there would be a vast surplus of electricity even without efficiency if TVA did not cancel at least eight of the 14 reactors under construction. Continued construction of all 14 would mean spiraling electricity costs to pay for idle reactors generating no revenue, hurting households and businesses. It was a Herculean task, but he did succeed in canceling those reactors. He is now remembered rightly for his advocacy of solar energy and efficiency at the TVA, as at the other public power agencies he led after his TVA tenure.

A vignette recounted to me over lunch — lunch seems to have been a theme in our relationship — showed one of his most admirable sides: his integrity. The Clinch River Breeder Reactor – supposed to make more plutonium than it used as a fuel, a design long dreamed of by nuclear engineers — was being built in Tennessee. Billions had already been spent around the world since the early 1950s to try and commercialize the design, to no avail. Costs of the Clinch River reactor had skyrocketed and the project was in trouble in Congress.

Senator Howard Baker of Tennessee, who had become the Majority Leader of the Senate in 1981, wanted the project completed. He asked Dave to go to bat for it. But, Dave, the son of an umbrella repairman, stood up to Baker, arguably the most powerful person in the U.S. Congress at the time. He said no. Dave believed that that project was bad for the TVA and bad for the country. He was right. Nearly four decades and tens of billions of dollars more spent worldwide after his refusal, the design still has not been commercialized. In my view, its prospects remain miserably dim.

Dave led several public power agencies after TVA — the Lower Colorado River Authority in Texas, where he acquired his signature cowboy hat, the New York Power Authority, the Sacramento Municipal Utility District which he saved from itself by shutting down its costly nuclear power plant, and the Los Angeles Department of Water and Power. As a utility executive reputed for making tough decisions, he could easily have led an investor-owned utility and made oodles of money — far more than he made in public power. But over all the decades I knew him, I never once heard him even mention that possibility. The New Deal for him meant serving public power with integrity and competence; it was in his Depression-era DNA. He had enough to live well. He did not want more for himself; he wanted more for us all — clean air, an affordable, renewable, efficient energy system, government with integrity not beholden to corporate power. As much as anything, that made him a very great man.

I always felt that he was not as renowned as he should have been for being a leading pioneer of U.S. energy policy, as the man who, well before the 1973 energy crisis, dared to think economic growth could be decoupled from energy growth and then played a central role in making it happen. I used to joke with him that he was a bad salesman. Were he better, “Green Cowboy,” hat, drawl, and all, would long ago have become a widely celebrated brand, a green rival to the tiger-in-the-tank.

In 2006, Dave and I were at an energy conference organized by the famous physician and nuclear disarmament leader, Dr. Helen Caldicott. During a break, with Helen listening, he said “Arjun, I think we should get rid of oil and coal and nuclear and go to solar energy.”

I reacted sharply and noted that solar was very costly; his idea could create very serious problems for the economy.

His rejoinder was blunt: “You’re just being a knee-jerk naysayer. When is the last time you seriously looked at the energy landscape?”

I had to admit that it had been a while. Helen urged me to do the research. “I’ll raise the money for you” she promised. She did, and I did. Both she and Dave were on my Board of Advisors for that project. When it ended, I concluded that Dave was right on both counts. First, my response in 2006 had indeed been a knee-jerk reaction. Second, while it would be very difficult, a renewable energy system was feasible in the United States. The result of that effort was a book: Carbon-Free and Nuclear-Free: A Roadmap for U.S. Energy Policy. It was the first assessment of the feasibility of a renewable energy economy in the United States. A feather in Dave’s hat; I had been the numbers vehicle for his inspiration.

That conclusion has held up. The only change, based on my most recent work on the topic, Prosperous, Renewable Maryland, is that I think it won’t be as difficult to get there. Solar and wind are now the cheapest sources of electricity. We have the technology to deal with their intermittency. There have been breakthroughs in batteries for electric vehicles. Dave also wrote about the new technical realities and prospects in a 2016 book, An All-Electric America. The requirement for political guts to take on fossil fuel corporate power and for a vision grounded in technical reality has not changed.

Dave and I spoke a few weeks ago in late March – me at home in suburban Maryland, and he, at his daughter’s in suburban Virginia; our lunch had been derailed by the new coronavirus. We spoke of the pandemic and the possibility that the moment might serve to make the world more in harmony with nature, more sustainable, one in which living well was joined with a notion of enough. I wanted to engage him in that conversation that day.

“It’s too early,” he said decidedly. “It’s too hard to see the outlines of things to come. Let’s wait till we can meet for lunch and talk.”

It is a lunch that I will have to eat without Dave. A heart attack has snatched him from us at a moment perhaps more pregnant with potential than the 1973 oil crisis. I will try to channel his visionary spirit and determination to serve the public purpose and meld them with my own nascent ideas.

Stephen Smith
Dr. Stephen A. Smith has over 35 years of experience affecting positive change for the environment. Since 1993, Dr. Smith has led the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as…
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