By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Were Freeman to try every hat trick in the book, it still wouldn‘t get the power here any quicker -- much of the electricity he has secured will not be available for months or years, until current obligations are fulfilled or new plants built. Such contracts are merely a stopgap measure; in the best-case scenario, they would provide less than one-third of the power California needs.
As for a long-term solution, state lawmakers are battling over that now. At the moment, there are two proposals on the table. The one favored by the governor and Assembly Speaker Bob Hertzberg (D--Sherman Oaks) entails bailing out PG&E and Edison in exchange for stock options, a notion that is anathema to some leading Democrats, as well as to consumer groups who feel that the tottering utilities should not be let off the hook so easily. The other proposal, put forward by Senator John Burton (D--San Francisco), is essentially a two-part plan that would entail buying the major utilities’ transmission lines, which account for 60 percent of the statewide total, and then creating a statewide power authority.
The line takeover would provide a middle-term solution, giving the state some control over the flow of electricity, which, in the wake of reports that providers are capitalizing on “power pockets” and gridlock, looks to be nearly as important as the actual supply. (In recent days the governor appears to be warming to this idea.) The long-term answer -- the statewide authority -- would enable the state to build and operate its own power plants, thereby insulating consumers from the whims of the market.
Opponents of the statewide authority argue that it smacks of socialism, and indeed it would be the nation‘s first new public-power agency in decades, bucking the national trend toward increased privatization of essential public services. But one of the bill’s advocates, state Treasurer Phil Angelides, argues that it is the only way to ensure that such a crisis never occurs again. “Is energy purely a commodity, or, as I believe, something so elemental to our needs that we need to view it differently?” he said. “The truth of the matter is that private power is investment-driven, not driven by the public interest. We ought to have a clinical understanding of what the private market can do well, and what it can‘t do well we ought to do for ourselves.”
And who would head such an authority? The man in the white cowboy hat springs to mind. Freeman, in fact, helped pen the legislation, which also includes a provision for investment in energy efficiency. “I don’t think there‘s anybody in the country better qualified,” said Stewart Udall, who now practices environmental law in Santa Fe. “I think that is the way California has got to go. You made an incredible mistake out there, and you’ve got to get it back on track. There‘s got to be state leadership. If the state doesn’t do it, you‘re in trouble.”
So here stands Freeman, three-quarters of a century into his own life, and within spitting distance of the chance to bring the grand tradition of public-works projects -- and his own conservation vision -- into the 21st century. Repair, conserve. His lifelong mandate writ large.
Yet when asked about his current and future plans, Freeman is circumspect. He gives the impression that he’s winding down, though he may just be playing it close to the vest.
In recent years, he‘s undergone a quadruple bypass and cataract surgery, and he jokes about his age. At his recent 75th-birthday party, he gave each of his nine grandchildren $75. “My 9-year-old grandson asked me, ’Next year are you gonna give us each $76?‘ and I said, ’I sure am.‘ And he said, ’I hope you‘re still alive.’”
But if the authority does go forward and Freeman is offered the helm, how could he resist the biggest challenge of his long and eventful public-power career: establishing a public agency that could pull the state out of the current crisis and create a legacy for decades to come. Or as Freeman puts it, “Let‘s hitch up a few more horses and get this wagon out of the mud.”
Research assistance by Christine Pelisek