It doesn’t really matter what you believe’ — former TVA chairman talks of life after fossil fuels 

Source: Edward Klump, E&E reporter • Posted: Thursday, April 2, 2015

HOUSTON — It took less than five minutes for S. David Freeman to make clear he wasn’t giving a typical Texas energy conference talk yesterday.

“Let me just remind you that we have an uninvited guest in this room that’s sitting next to each and every one of you and hovering over you — and she is called Mother Nature,” Freeman, a former chairman at the Tennessee Valley Authority, told a crowd here.

“And it doesn’t really matter what you believe; she’s here, and she will dominate the energy policy of this country for the rest of your life,” he said.

Freeman, 89, delivered a post-lunch keynote address at the Gulf Coast Power Association’s spring conference. Besides his work for TVA, he has spent time in electricity-related jobs in states including Texas, New York and California, where he dealt with fallout from the power crisis of the early 2000s.

Attendees were invited to enjoy dessert as Freeman gave his thoughts yesterday, although he made a point of not sugarcoating his comments.

For one thing, Freeman said he wanted to be blunt about climate change, which he acknowledged isn’t a popular subject in Texas. Regardless of what politicians do or don’t say, greenhouse gases are affecting the climate, according to Freeman.

“Al Gore doesn’t know for sure what’s going to happen,” Freeman told the audience, “but neither do you.”

And where there’s uncertainty, Freeman said, businesspeople take out insurance against risks. In this case, he called for moves to stop burning fossil fuels and a transition to renewables.

Solar, wind and storage amount to a low-cost option in energy today on a life-cycle basis, Freeman said. He said the environmental community has screwed up the debate by talking of sacrifice.

Freeman, who in an interview later described himself as a senior adviser to Friends of the Earth, touted advancements in technology. In the interview, Freeman also questioned nuclear power, calling it immoral to produce waste without knowing where to put it. He also mentioned past nuclear accidents and cost overruns.

“I never dreamed that I’d live long enough to see solar power and wind power being delivered at the prices that they’re delivered today,” he told the crowd, “nor did I ever visualize that storage would be such an integral and important and viable part of our energy family as it is.”

Freeman pointed to the gaining traction of solar in Hawaii and urged the power industry not to deceive itself when it comes to the thoughts of a consumer who could have the ability to leave the traditional electricity setup.

“He or she is buying something that they have to have, that they never see, that they don’t know how much they’re buying, and if they don’t pay that damn bill first they get their lights cut off,” Freeman said. “If that’s not enough to piss somebody off, I don’t know what is. And unplugging is a very popular thing.”

Heat pumps and electric cars

He said companies such as SolarCity Corp. are poised for gains. He said playing defense is a losing strategy, while the power industry could tap into its history of marketing that once included talk of an all-electric home.

In fact, Freeman called for the promotion of efficient but greater use of electricity. And that could come at the expense of the petroleum sector, which is central to Houston’s business community.

“We have got to put the electric power industry to work in putting the oil and gas business out of business over the next 35 years, or we cook, the planet cooks,” Freeman said. “The fate of the world really rests in the hands of the electric power industry.”

One example is more use of heat pumps, which Freeman said are more efficient than in the past and can be an alternative to natural gas. Another area for growth he cited was the electric car.

“If Google or Amazon owned you guys, they would be out there promoting electric cars in a way that would make this thing happen almost overnight,” Freeman told the crowd.

He said power companies could seek to own batteries in electric cars and put that in the rate base, lowering the price of an electric car and boosting business.

“This industry can double and triple if you go after the heating load and go after the transportation load,” Freeman said.

John Fainter, president of the Association of Electric Companies of Texas, didn’t make it to yesterday’s talk. But he recalled Freeman as a “very imaginative, very bright guy,” although he said efficiency gains could affect future growth numbers.

Fainter agreed that a number of technological developments will affect the electric industry, such as reduced costs for rooftop solar, research on microgrids and batteries, and use of efficiency and conservation measures.

“There’s no stopping the development of technology,” Fainter said. “It’s coming, and it’s going to be real exciting for some and very frustrating and concerning for others going forward, just like any move.”

Still, he said reliability will need to be maintained through any changes.

Besides climate impacts, Freeman said that if the United States doesn’t act, China will “kick our butt economically” as it builds renewable energy.

“My challenge to you people is to either embrace it or play defensive ball and watch … your business get whittled away one year at a time,” Freeman told the crowd.

Freeman added that Texas has shown that competitive elements can work in a power market.

“Well, let’s just take the idea of competition one step further, and let’s just have the Texas electric family show the rest of the world what it is to really get out there and compete and take on the oil and gas people,” he said, “and see if here, in the great state of Texas, the home of petroleum, that you show the way to a future where we can all live better electrically.”