This French Engineer Has a Plan to Make L.A. Sustainable

French expat Laurent Pilon has spent the last 16 years at UCLA developing renewable energy technology. The Nantes-born professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering was recently given the reins – and a 3-million dollar grant from the National Science Foundation – to make the county of Los Angeles sustainable by 2050.
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To convert the country’s most populous urban area to 100 percent renewable energy and local water in the next four decades, Pilon relies on interdisciplinarity. His five-year initiative will bring together students and faculty from different majors and departments and teach them to solve the issue of food, energy and water management from many perspectives at once.

France-Amérique: Tell us more about the interdisciplinary aspect of your program. Why is it important?

Laurent Pilon: Meeting our needs for food, energy and water is complex and involves a lot of different fields so creating sustainable solutions requires that we think in an interdisciplinary way. For instance, behavioral scientists, urban planners and policy-makers can help scientists and engineers to get people to use the technology they have developed. Economists are also key players because cost is a big incentive for change. People really start thinking about climate change and waste when the price of gas goes up. The program will teach graduate students to work with students and faculty who are outside of their traditionally compartmentalized academic field to address challenges facing our cities and society at large. 

What about the liberal arts departments? Will they also be involved?

Yes, certainly. Communication is a key aspect and that’s why Allison Carruth at the UCLA English Department will run a program called LENS – Laboratory for Environmental Narrative Strategies. She will work with the students and show them how to communicate with scientists, engineers, manufacturers, stakeholders, politicians and the general public.

What are some examples of ways to reduce food, energy and water waste in L.A.? 

Some sources say 50 percent of all food consumed in the U.S. is wasted and represents around 25 percent of our water use. In California, we spend about 25 percent of our energy moving and processing water. So, the ways we produce and use these resources are really interconnected and reducing waste in one is often beneficial to the other two. In terms of food waste, we could approach the problem from many different angles. On the behavioral sciences side, it would be about tackling the problem by doing research into what makes people throw food away. We could also develop technology that can tell people when food has gone bad and rethink food-labeling. There is “sell by,” “use by” and “best by, ” so it gets a little confusing. In terms of energy, we could make buildings more efficient so energy-wasters like air conditioning would not be necessary. Another energy consumer, transportation, is undergoing a change right now. With the upcoming Olympics in 2028, a revolution will take place in terms of public transportation. Light-rail trains and subway expansions could increase the overall energy efficiency of our transportation system while raising our quality of life.

How do France and America differ in their  approaches to climate change? 

We cannot compare the two countries; France is about the size of Texas. Furthermore, having access to resources changes the way we think about energy and how we use it. In the U.S., people have jobs that depend on fossil energy sources such as oil, coal, and natural gas. Since it is cheap and readily available, people naturally think, “ Why not use it? ” This isn’t even a question in France where we don’t have such natural resources. France imports a lot of gas and oil so the country has to think about the resource in a different way. However, the difference is not as large when comparing France and California. They both place a strong emphasis on energy efficiency and clean energy like solar and wind. The gap in mentalities, behavior and performance is not as large. 

What can be done, at the individual level, to affect change?

There is an excessive use of energy in the U.S. through lifestyle decisions like driving big inefficient cars or having a lawn in the middle of the desert. I’ve been cold in the summer because of the air conditioning and forced to open my windows in the winter because of excessive heating. Things could be less wasteful and still comfortable. We should think about how individually and collectively we can reduce our consumption while meeting our needs. There’s no silver bullet in energy so to create change, people will have to modify their behaviors just as scientists will have to find more sustainable solutions. It must be all of the above.