Etienne Deffarges: Five Things We Must Do To Inspire The Next Generation About Sustainability And The Environment, Interview with Authority Magazine

Penny Bauder
Dec 5 · 2020
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Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit more. Can you tell us a bit about how you grew up?

My father worked for the French foreign service, and when growing up we lived in very different countries, Brazil, Denmark, Spain, France, and Brazil again. I got the bug, and my first professional experience was in several South American countries, Argentina, Brazil, Peru and Venezuela. There I could see first-hand how poor environmental controls can lead to very adverse conditions for large populations. I saw a lot of it, the burning of refuse in residential buildings in postal card scenic Rio de Janeiro; the large “burning of the soil” in poor agricultural areas, leading to short-term gains but very quickly the exhaustion of the land; massive deforestation in the Amazon forest; and desertification in savannas.

During my childhood, my father drove us everywhere — literally. My parents took their four children all the way to the northernmost reaches of Europe, hundreds of miles North of the Polar Circle. And then, through the Amazonian forest in Brazil and all the way South to Argentina. Our Peugeot and Citroen family cars would take the six or seven of us (we often had an au-pair) in relative comfort, at speeds up to 110 mph on the German autobahns. Yet, these cars only had 100–120 BHP or so, much less than a VW Golf today. How could they go with such small engines? Because they weighted around a single ton or 2,200 lbs, also much less than a typical car today, not to mention a SUV. Our modern cars, their electronics et al., are far too bulky and heavy — there is an environmental lesson here.

Was there an “aha moment” or a specific trigger that made you decide you wanted to become a scientist or environmental leader? Can you share that story with us?

There was no “aha moment,” but rather a gradual evolution over my entire life, from what I observed growing up in many different countries, to my professional career first in aeronautics and then in energy. When you deal with either energy intensive machinery like airplanes, or energy production itself, environmental issues and solutions are a natural part of the equation. In Europe, where I spent part of my youth, energy consumption has always been taxed much more heavily than in the U.S. — most Americans who spend time driving in Europe know this first hand. The initial motivation for this was conservation of precious resources (Europe imports most of the hydrocarbons it consumes), but the path from energy conservation to clean energy is a very natural one. Even today, with renewables having proven they can substitute fossil fuels economically, energy conservation remains an essential component of the existential fight against climate change and its negative impact on our planet.

If there was no “aha moment,” there was one person that influenced me profoundly in this area: Amory Lovins. I had the privilege to meet Amory, the founder of the Aspen based Rocky Mountain Institute, in the early 1990s, and we worked together on a variety of projects over a dozen years. Amory is a scientist who also has an innate sense of what will work, practically and economically. He started his career helping industrial production units save energy just by optimizing the flow of gases and liquids flowing through complex networks of pipes, and from there grew to be one of the most influential environmentalists in the world. He always follows science and has contributed immensely to the very impressive growth of renewables in the energy world. Many of the changes he advocates for, such as the need in the U.S. for an extensive high-voltage “smart grid” and decentralized electric power production, still need to be implemented at scale, but we are getting there despite many attempts to go backwards by the current administration. Think about it, in California 35% of our electricity production comes from renewables and governor Newsom has just signed an executive order banning the sale of new gasoline cars by 2035. Texas, not generally viewed as a bastion of supporters of the “Green New Deal,” leads the country in wind power generation. Progress!

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Is there a lesson you can take out of your own story that can exemplify what can inspire a young person to become an environmental leader?

Follow science, and it will guide you to solutions that will also prove economical. Do it in that order — scientific imperatives first — because a blind focus on short-term economics will not lead you to the best solutions long-term, from both the environment and economics standpoints. Also, do not be dogmatic! Science is inherently pragmatic. This means that helping planet earth heal from climate change cannot rely on the “free” markets and private initiative alone — these promote the much-needed changes at far too slow a speed. But, on the other hand, we cannot just wait for our governments to do everything. We, as citizens and professionals, need to be fully engaged in this challenge, at work and at home. And then, choose a field and a path that will help you contribute. For me, it was energy. But they are many other fields that can lead to active engagement in sustainability and the environment.

Can you tell our readers about the initiatives that you or your company are taking to address climate change or sustainability? Can you give an example for each?

When I worked as a senior then global managing partner for two multinational consultancies, I was for fifteen years an active participant in the Energy Forum of the Aspen Institute. We had many passionate discussions on the environment and non-polluting energy, even though during the 1990s and the early 21st century most economists dismissed the potential of renewables to make a dent in the world’s energy consumption matrix — how wrong they were! I also founded in 2000 the Energy Advisory Board of a very large multinational technology company. Our charter was, “how to help the U.S. wean itself out of middle-eastern oil.” We had 25 CEOs of a variety of energy companies from a dozen countries, several academics and economists including a Nobel Prize, and our debates had a certain impact, since they influenced the strategies of many businesses with significant impact on the global scene.

Can you share 3 lifestyle tweaks that the general public can do to be more sustainable or help address the climate change challenge?

Ok, thank you for all that. Here is the main question of our interview: The youth led climate strikes of September 2019 showed an impressive degree of activism and initiative by young people on behalf of climate change. This was great, and there is still plenty that needs to be done. In your opinion what are 5 things parents should do to inspire the next generation to become engaged in sustainability and the environmental movement? Please give a story or an example for each.

In 2020, we have the lowest ice cap on record in the Arctic; blocks of ice the size of England melting and breaking off Antarctica; floods and damage caused by ever more frequent hurricanes; and half a dozen western U.S. states engulfed in wildfires, with deadly smoke covering a quarter of the country. No wonder the next generation is aghast at what has been done to Mother Earth!

Still, we have to engage with our children, would it be only to help them not repeat the mistakes we made. Here are the 5 things we must do:

How would you articulate how a business can become more profitable by being more sustainable and more environmentally conscious? Can you share a story or example?

If your business is to build and operate a new electricity generation business today, you can base it on renewable sources like solar panels and wind power on an industrial scale (the mix depending on where you are located geographically, in the West with lots of sunshine or in the plains of Texas and the Midwest, with lots of wind), supplemented by a large array of batteries for storage. This environmentally friendly solution (no carbon emissions) will save a lot of operating costs relative to even the most modern coal-fired power plant — which still pollutes a lot. This is why the U.S. Energy Information Administration (EIA) projects electricity generation from renewables to overtake coal and nuclear by 2021, or next year.

We were having a discussion about this almost twenty years ago at the Energy Advisory Board I had founded, with the CEOs of two very large utilities, a Spaniard and an American. The Spanish CEO had talked about how half the electricity generated for his utility, which covered over 40% of Spain, came from wind. This prompted his U.S. counterpart, dubbed “Mr. coal” in the industry because of the reliance of his company on large coal-fired power generation plants, to ask: “Well, I am impressed. But where are all these wind mills?” To which the Spaniard responded, “In La Mancha, of course! You have not read Don Quijote?”

None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?

I mentioned Amory Lovins earlier in this interview. Amory had a strong influence on my thinking, demonstrating to me in a variety of consulting projects for large energy companies that the more sustainable and environmentally conscious solutions can also be the more profitable. He also had a strong belief that when it comes to energy, “less is more,” and that conservation always beats low cost. Hence his coining of the term “negawatts,” and the successful (if not always followed, even today) argument that before a business starts planning for access to energy sources with the lowest possible cost, it should first plan to reduce its energy consumption to the minimum. Always extremely logical and disciplined in his thinking, Amory followed this “lean” approach with his “Hypercar” project, where the driving concept was the use of carbon fiber to reduce weight, even before advocating for the use of electricity and batteries to reduce emissions — very much like the story I mentioned earlier about my father’s cars, fuel efficient because of their low weight relative to cars today.

You are a person of great influence and doing some great things for the world! If you could inspire a movement that would bring the greatest amount of good to the greatest amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂

Make our planet great again! This is not a new idea, not even a new slogan, but it captures well the priorities we should all espouse for the next few decades. Everything we do, every day, can be a positive input in this existential challenge we face. I would be delighted to inspire and support any movement that would aim to mobilize everyone in this country to join the global effort to save and then heal our planet.

Do you have a favorite life lesson quote? Can you tell us how that was relevant to you in your own life?

I have the good fortune of being a serial entrepreneur. This is never easy, and above all requires infinite patience to follow a sound game plan that might unfold over many years. One can never claim victory too soon, even after a successful IPO with a share price growing nicely. My favorite life lesson quote, one that epitomized that there is always much to fight for even after a great achievement, comes from Winston Churchill. Just after the young Royal Air Force pilots had won the decisive “Battle of England” that prevented Nazi Germany from invading the U.K., Churchill was asked about the significance of this decisive victory and said: “This is not the end. This is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

What is the best way for people to follow you on social media?

LinkedIn: etienne-deffarges-012a33ba, and my website:

This was so inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!

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