The Green Cowboy, David Freeman Dies at 94

Engineer, attorney, author, and former head of some of the largest public power utilities in the U.S., S. David Freeman passed away on May 12 outside of Washington, D.C., following a heart attack at the age of 94.

Freeman was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and received a degree in electrical engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology (Georgia Tech). After college, he worked for the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA) for several years before attending the University of Tennessee and earning a law degree. He subsequently returned to TVA as an attorney, where he worked in the law department for about 13 years.

In 1967, Freeman was appointed to an energy committee by President Lyndon Johnson, and he later worked for the Environmental Protection Agency during the Nixon administration. President Jimmy Carter appointed Freeman to head the TVA board in 1977. While leading the board, Freeman shifted the organization’s focus toward energy conservation, and he was instrumental in shutting down construction on several of TVA’s nuclear projects.

From TVA, Freeman went on to leadership roles with the New York Power Authority, Lower Colorado River Authority (LCRA), Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), and Los Angeles Department of Water and Power (LADWP). It was while working for the LCRA in Austin, Texas, that Freeman reportedly began wearing a cowboy hat as protection from the sun. The hat, along with Freeman’s penchant for renewable energy, energy efficiency, and clean transportation policies and initiatives, earned him the “Green Cowboy” nickname, which he proudly included in the title of his 2016-published autobiography The Green Cowboy: An Energetic Life.

Freeman became general manager of SMUD in 1990, shortly after the people of Sacramento voted to close the Rancho Seco nuclear power plant (Figure 1). The station, which entered commercial operation in 1975, had a dismal operating history and it was a drain on the utility’s finances, leading to a number of substantial rate increases. Freeman’s strategy of focusing on energy efficiency and investing in renewable energy provided the impetus to turn SMUD around. Its rates are now among the lowest in California, with SMUD customers paying 35% less on average than customers of neighboring utility Pacific Gas and Electric.

1.         The Rancho Seco nuclear power plant operated from April 1975 to June 1989. The unit’s lifetime capacity factor was only 39%, and it was considered the main driver behind regular SMUD rate increases that included a 92% increase over one three-year span. David Freeman helped lead SMUD out of its nuclear abyss. Source: POWER

Most recently, Freeman joined the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy (SACE) as a senior energy advisor where his four decades of experience directing federal, regional, and local energy policies was appreciated. Dr. Stephen A. Smith, executive director of SACE, said in a statement, “S. 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.”

Freeman is survived by his daughter, two sons, nine grandchildren, and a great-grandson.

Aaron Larson is POWER’s executive editor (@AaronL_Power, @POWERmagazine).

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