Shining a Light on a Sustainable Savannah: Nick Deffley’s Quest for a Clean City

Nick Deffley is trying to find common ground in Savannah. Deffley has served as the City of Savannah’s Sustainability Director since the department was created in 2014. He’s worked to establish pathways that will lead the city to full, eco-friendly sustainability, but the path is often faced with setbacks.

“What speaks is always money first,” he says with a chuckle. “That’s typically where we start.”

But it isn’t always about money. 

“If you’re just thinking about economics, you’re missing the boat,” says Deffley. “There’s more costs and benefits to be realized outside of hard dollars.”

Deffley’s blunt, honest approach to sustainability practices is a refreshing tone during an era that faces a recurrent conflict over environmental concerns. He notes that sustainability and subsequently climate change are stigmatized issues that are frequently politicized.  

“I think that this has been made to be a real unfortunate event,” he says. “These aren’t political issues. Ultimately, everyone wants clean air, everyone wants clean water to drink, and everyone wants to go out and experience nature from time to time.” 

Savannah’s location on the east coast provides residents with the distinct opportunity to bear witness to the effects of climate change. Our coastal city has seen flooding increases and ecosystem changes over the years as temperatures continue to rise. 

Climate change and its effect on Coastal Georgia isn’t going to be solved overnight.


The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has produced five assessments on climate change and global warming since the early 1990s. The most recent fifth assessment, published in 2014, found that “human influence on the climate system is clear, and recent anthropogenic emissions of greenhouse gases are the highest in history.” That assessment warns that “continued emission of greenhouse gases will cause further warming and long-lasting changes in all components of the climate system, increasing the likelihood of severe pervasive, and irreversible impacts for people and ecosystems.” 

The Environmental Protection Agency identifies the largest source of greenhouse gas emissions coming from human activities is from “burning fossil fuels for electricity, heat, and transportation.”  The EPA cites the U.S. Energy Information Administration’s 2019 report that “approximately 62 percent of our electricity comes from burning fossil fuels, mostly coal and gas.” 

This information highlights the need for the implementation of a renewable, sustainable energy source. The immediate answer is the widespread use of solar energy, but the infrastructure is costly. A recent Consumer Affairs report found the average cost for solar panel installation is about $12,000 after federal tax incentives. Systems can range from the low-end ($5,000) to the high-end($40,000 or more). There are extra costs that go beyond the installation of the panels. These include labor and operational costs, etc. 


Senator Jon Ossoff recently introduced the Solar Energy Manufacturing for America Act. The act seeks to increase American solar manufacturing while accelerating the transition to clean energy. The act would also provide tax credits to the solar manufacturing industry, incentivizing domestic production and driving down costs for consumers. 

Other local initiatives are working to make solar energy a mainstream movement. Solarize Savannah is a community-based group that helps homeowners, businesses and nonprofits become more resilient and reduce energy burdens. Savannah Mayor Van Johnson recently highlighted the organization, citing the need for their help in combating Savannah’s overly high energy burden. 

“Savannah has an above-average energy burden and we know the amount of monthly income that residents pay on their energy bill. We know that it’s not fair,” Johnson said in an interview with WSAV. 

Environment Georgia is another organization that is dedicated to bringing affordable solar energy to the Peach State. Jeanette Gayer says her organization wants to make sure the price tag of solar panels do not scare low-income residents away from solar installation. 

“Solar can save people lots of money and protect them against future rate increases that we know are coming,” Gayer said. “This is why we are emphasizing and setting a goal for solar on low and moderate-income homes.”


The City of Savannah has set sustainability goals that they believe will positively impact all residents, regardless of socioeconomic status. The current City Council recently passed the 100 percent clean energy act. This commits the city government to achieving significant goals by key dates, specifically: 

  • All electricity consumed in the City of Savannah is generated from safe, clean, renewable energy by 2035. 
  • All other energy needs are generated from safe, clean, renewable energy by 2050. 

“In the next few years, you should be seeing a lot more solar on city facilities,” says Deffley. ”From the arena, to our new public works facilities, to other buildings around the city.”

But these are just plans. And while efforts are being made to implement them, they remain invisible to the average person. It’s hard for us to see the immediate impact of our relationship with the environment. I give Deffley an example. 

“If I throw a styrofoam cup into the river (I have not, nor would I ever, do this), the water doesn’t begin to bubble and boil over,” I say. ” The cup just sits there, and I walk away. How do you get people to care about their impact on the environment even if they can’t immediately see how their actions are affecting their surroundings?” 

Deffley sits quietly for a moment, mulling over my example.  

“I believe you win people over when you give them new experiences,” he says slowly. “For instance, we recently did a river clean-up on kayaks out on Haner’s Creek, just south of Montgomery Crossroads. You get all sorts of folks who are just excited to get out on kayaks. You get them out there, and people go out and see the water, experience some of the Lowcountry and the marshlands that you live next to, that you don’t always see. And then, they’re tasked with—well, here’s a litter picker, here’s a trash bag. We go out at high tide. Go pick up whatever you can find.”

He continues, “There’s litter everywhere. You go out and experience the beauty of nature and you’re also witnessing the impact of these people cleaning out there. You’re seeing them collect cups, tires, trash, television sets, refrigerators…it’s amazing what you’ll see out in the marsh. It’s amazing what people think they can do that won’t have an impact on the environment around them.” 

I’m dumbfounded at the thought of finding a television set in the water, much less a full refridgerator. 

“I can’t tell you how invaluable that experience is,” continues Deffley. “Getting people out of their environment to see things through a slightly different lens. Getting someone to see something—those are the kind of experiences that we all need to have.” 

Deffley has made it his mission to find common ground. While we all try to understand what a sustainable playing field looks like, one thing is certain: it has to be better than the litter-covered one we’re currently on.

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