Electropolis: Renewable Energy Renegade S. David Freeman Takes Charge at the New York Power Authority

By Nixon, Will; Downey, John | E Magazine, October 1994 | Go to article overview

Electropolis: Renewable Energy Renegade S. David Freeman Takes Charge at the New York Power Authority


Nixon, Will, Downey, John, E Magazine


From his office on the 22nd floor of a black tower north of Times Square, S. David Freeman, the new president of the New York Power Authority (NYPA), can see why he isn't yet famous for solar power in the Big Apple. A cloud canopy hangs over New Jersey, hiding everything beyond the pewter-colored Hudson River. Higher overcast has blurred the sun into a vague lantern with a soft bulb. The people on the sidewalks carry black umbrellas, no doubt convinced that solar power belongs in pocket calculators and California, where Freeman did indeed become famous as the general manager of the Sacramento Municipal Utility District (SMUD), which has a field of photovoltaic panels beside its defunct nuclear power plant. But he's hardly deterred by gray weather.

"We need a bully pulpit that tells the American people that we can move over the next 30 or 40 years away from nuclear, away from oil, away from coal, away from all of it. We have the technology to use our renewable resources either in the form of electricity or of hydrogen to power all of our high-energy civilization. It's easier to do scientifically than to develop fusion power. It's easier than to get up to Mars," Freeman says from his own bully pulpit, a blue Victorian floral print chair that seems at odds with his Tennessee drawl, populist style, and his cowboy boot propped on his knee.

Renewable energy isn't alien to the East, which uses electricity from dams in Canada. Even solar power has sprung up under the changeable skies, from telephone book-size solar panels on highway emergency phone poles to long rooftop panels on an office in Albany and on a warehouse in Queens. The Public Service Commission that regulates New York's seven private utilities has asked them to install 300 megawatts of renewable energy projects by the year 2000. They will range from tapping the methane gas in landfills to using more of the woody biomass in the upstate forests and the downstate construction debris, shipping pallets, and other waste now leaving cities for landfills.

The Niagara Mohawk Power utility has built two wind turbines to tap the weather fronts blowing east from Lake Ontario. NYPA itself has measured the sunlight on the roof at Lincoln Center in Manhattan and installed solar panels at several locations. But, all in all, these projects are still a few seeds on a huge field of hydroelectric dams, nuclear power plants and oil and gasburning utilities. Three hundred megawatts is about one hundreth of the state's power. This movement has long needed a dynamic leader: Enter David Freeman. "It's like night and day," says Mark Kapner, NYPA's manager of conservation and alternative energy, "Now we have someone who says, |What are you waiting for?'"

Created in 1931 to electrify rural New York, NYPA has become a giant wholesaler, supplying electricity to the seven private utilities and the M e t r o p o l i t a n Transit Authority which runs the subways and trains around New York City. It owns 12 power plants, including two dams on the St. Lawrence River and two nuclear power plants. One, Indian Point 3 on the Hudson River 35 miles north of New York City, has been closed since February 1993, after investigators found that workers had falsified log data, flunked drug tests, and failed to report operating problems on time.

Freeman, a self-proclaimed "utility repairman," hasn't yet formed an opinion about the future of Indian Point 3, but he has certainly shaken up NYPA, which had become a troubled agency under previous president Richard Flynn, who liked to spend money on parties and perks. (He even flew a NYPA plane to his weekend home in Rhode Island.) After arriving in March, Freeman quickly slashed $50 million from a $487 million operating budget and opposed NYPA's $5 billion contract with Hydro Quebec, which wants to build dams in the proposed James Bay II project that would damage a wilderness area the size of France,

At 68, Freeman has a slight stoop, deep lines hooked over his gray mustache, and glow-in-the-dark white sideburns, But he still burns with the passion for renewable energy that he developed in the mid-70s as a federal official trying to cope with the OPEC oil shocks. …

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