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Still, Freeman had his heart set on playing a role in the Kennedy administration, and he soon went to work for the chairman of the Federal Power Commission. In 1967, under Lyndon Johnson, Freeman became the nation’s first-ever coordinator of energy policy. Conducting the first analysis of U.S. energy spending, he found that 90 percent was going toward nuclear power and none toward conservation. As Freeman delved into the worlds of energy, the environment and national policy, he quickly concluded that whatever course the nation chose to pursue, it would ultimately fail without conservation. This simple truth, which Freeman helped push to the top of the national agenda, became the foundation of his life‘s work.
Freeman stayed in Washington under Richard Nixon, drafting the first-ever message on energy policy delivered by a U.S. president. He also worked behind the scenes on the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency, as well as the Clean Air and Clean Water acts, laws that remain the bedrock of national conservation. But Freeman had his greatest impact as an architect of Jimmy Carter’s energy policy. As the U.S. came to grips with the OPEC oil cartel, Freeman forged his own path, arguing that America squandered half the energy it produced. He also cautioned against too much reliance on nuclear power, which he believed could prove both costly and dangerous. He urged the country to turn to conservation, and to consider renewable resources such as the sun and the wind. “I know this sounds like I‘m bragging,” Freeman said recently, “but I put energy efficiency in the public-policy lexicon.”
Stewart L. Udall, secretary of the interior under Kennedy and Johnson, says that characterization is correct. Udall, now 81, worked closely with Freeman during that time, nearly 30 years ago. “One of the best things that came out of the Carter administration was the energy policy,” Udall said. “The best things in it were renewable energy. Dave was the one who saw this.”
By far the biggest policy challenge to emerge from that national energy conflux was nuclear power. Freeman was thrust into the center of the debate with his appointment in 1977 to the head of the Tennessee Valley Authority.
The assignment marked a turn in direction from policy to practice that would endure for a quarter-century and establish Freeman as the nation’s premier public-utility fix-it man. Perhaps more important, it was the first of several assignments that would set him directly at odds with the nation‘s love affair with nuclear power.
Shortly after his arrival at the TVA, Freeman learned that the construction of 14 nuclear plants was threatening to bankrupt the seven-state agency, and decided that eight of the plants needed to go. It was a wildly unpopular move. TVA plants had fueled the atom bomb, and there was even a high school football team called the Oak Ridge Bombers. But Freeman prevailed, compensating for the loss of potential power by launching a range of far-reaching conservation and alternative-energy programs, including home insulation and solar power.
Freeman’s next nuclear challenge came with his 1990 appointment to the Sacramento Municipal Utility District. The utility‘s Rancho Seco nuclear-power plant was an operational and economic disaster -- it was out of commission more than half the time and so costly to operate that rates were soaring as much as 25 percent per year. The year before Freeman arrived, voters had had enough. They barred SMUD from operating Rancho Seco.
Freeman dealt the final blow, closing Rancho Seco for good. He negotiated a 19-year decommissioning operation that meant no rate hikes for consumers, built three smaller cogeneration plants that relied on steam, solar and wind power to replace what was lost at the nuclear plant, and launched an aggressive energy-efficiency and conservation plan that over a decade saved enough energy to power a midsize plant. He persuaded hundreds of homeowners and businesses to install solar panels, making Sacramento the nation’s leader in solar power, a distinction it retains today. And he launched a generous incentive program for residents to replace their old refrigerators with newer, more efficient models. Ed Smeloff, who served on the SMUD board at the time, remembers that program well. “There‘s a photo of this huge parking lot at SMUD full of all these old refrigerators,” Smeloff said. “And there’s Dave, wearing his hat, sitting on top.”
Just as Freeman was planning to leave SMUD, he got a call from Mario Cuomo, whose New York Power Authority had its own nuclear-power problem. One of its reactors had been shut down for months because of safety concerns. In a move that was classic Freeman, he repaired and reopened the plant, surprising critics who had labeled him anti-nuclear. As Freeman would demonstrate time and again, he was no ideologue; he assessed the New York situation on its own merits, and when he saw that the energy could be tapped safely and economically, he concluded it was a plant worth saving.
No sooner had Freeman completed his New York assignment, patching up a bit of the nation‘s 20th-century power panacea, than he was called to California to help install the next century’s energy antidote.