S. David Freeman, a folksy but driven “green cowboy” who worked in energy policy under three presidents, ran some of the nation’s largest public utilities and pushed for renewable energy, died on Tuesday in Reston, Va. He was 94.
The cause was a heart attack, his son Stan said.
Mr. Freeman combined a deep understanding of energy issues with a passion for renewable energy and conservation. He also had a prescient early focus on reducing global warming.
As an engineer, lawyer and utility official, he brought a unique set of skills, the consumer advocate Ralph Nader said. “He was an unparalleled combination of managerial experience, scholarly knowledge and programmatic urgency in confronting the climate crisis,” Mr. Nader said in an interview.
Mr. Freeman was a young lawyer at the Tennessee Valley Authority when its general counsel, the New Dealer Joseph C. Swidler, moved to Washington in 1961 to join the Kennedy administration’s Federal Power Commission. Mr. Freeman went, too.
Mr. Freeman stayed on to serve in the Johnson administration, where he helped formulate energy policies — he once recalled learning about the great blackout of 1965 when “all of a sudden, every goddamn telephone in the place went off all at one time” — and later worked in the newly formed Environmental Protection Agency under President Richard M. Nixon. He then went to the Ford Foundation, where he produced a major report on energy policy, “A Time to Choose,” in 1974.
Mr. Freeman sent copies of the report to each of the nation’s governors, including Jimmy Carter of Georgia; when Mr. Carter became president, he named Mr. Freeman to the board of the T.V.A. in 1977 and elevated him to chairman in 1978.
Mr. Freeman’s career put him at the heart of energy issues “almost in a Forrest Gumpian sense,” his son Stan said. In every government post, he championed energy conservation and renewable sources of power production, a passion he traced to a meeting in 1968 in his office in the White House with two women from New Hampshire who came to see him.
In his memoir, “The Green Cowboy: An Energetic Life” (2016), he recalled that the women were opposed to a planned nuclear plant near their homes and made the case that conservation measures like home insulation and efficient refrigerators and light bulbs “could save more electricity than the nuclear power plant could produce.”
As he went over their numbers, “I felt as if a light bulb, a very efficient one, went off in my head,” he wrote. “I realized that energy efficiency wasn’t just a big deal — it was a giant deal and needed to become a reality.”
Those views led to similarly strong opinions on climate change, which he expressed in a 1973 book, “Energy: The New Era.” At the time, he wrote, scientists were not yet certain that climate change was a path toward disaster, but the issue was urgent:
“We can only be certain that man is tampering ignorantly and perhaps dangerously with the planet’s environment in a very fundamental way. And if we find that excessive fuel consumption is causing threatening changes in climate, the lead time for reducing fuel consumption to ward off the threat will be quite short.”
Mr. Freeman would go on to run public utilities in Texas, New York and California, and his longtime opposition to nuclear power brought him criticism. Over the years he prevented construction of nuclear plants or shut them down, calling them uneconomical and dangerous. One that he closed was the troubled Rancho Seco plant near Sacramento.
His belief that renewables could become economically competitive with other forms of power generation went from a minority view to a widely accepted one. The United States is on track this year to produce more energy from renewables than from coal.
In interviews, officials of the many power agencies he worked with spoke of Mr. Freeman as a legend. In a statement, Gil C. Quiniones, the president and chief executive of the New York Power Authority, one of the utilities Mr. Freeman led, lauded his “intelligence, force of personality and indomitable commitment to the goals of clean and affordable energy.” Stephen A. Smith, executive director of the Southern Alliance for Clean Energy, said in an interview: “He was like a dog with a bone. When he felt he was on the right track, he was relentless.”
Mr. Freeman worked informally with Dr. Smith for decades on efforts to reform the Tennessee Valley Authority and had recently joined the Southern Alliance formally.
While Mr. Freeman could be irascible and brusque, he held on to his down-home manner, said his son Roger, an environmental lawyer in Denver. He took to wearing a cowboy hat — which became his trademark — after a dermatologist told him to cover his head from the sun.
Roger Freeman recalled a talk in Denver at which his father urged utility company representatives to take the lead in renewable energy. “I know it’s tough when you’re an engineer in the utility business,” he recalled his father telling them. “We were all the D students! We weren’t supposed to be the change. But it’s time for the utility world to step up.”
Simon David Freeman was born on Jan. 14, 1926, in Chattanooga, Tenn., to Morris and Lena (Matzkel) Freeman. Both his parents had come to the United States from Lithuania. His father repaired umbrellas for a living; his mother was a homemaker who helped in the shop, as did David and his younger brother, Harold.
Mr. Freeman earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1948 from what is now the Georgia Institute of Technology and got a job as an engineer at the Tennessee Valley Authority. He then went to law school at the University of Tennessee, graduating in 1956, and went back to the T.V.A. as a lawyer.
His marriage to Marianne Cohn, whom he had met as an engineering student, ended in divorce in 1980. Two later marriages, to Suzanne Kennedy and Anne Crawford, also ended in divorce.
In addition to his sons, Roger and Stan, from his first marriage, he is survived by a daughter, Anita Hopkins, also from that marriage; his brother; nine grandchildren; and one great-grandson.
Mr. Freeman said that his earliest lesson in the importance of planning and resource management came from his father. As he told The New York Times in 2001, “His favorite expression was: ‘Any fool can buy an umbrella on a rainy day. It takes a wise man to buy an umbrella on a sunny day.’”