National Hispanic Heritage Month is a time to honor the diverse history of generations of Latinos. In honor of this month, the U.S. Department of Energy's Water Power Technologies Office (WPTO) asked six water power pioneers to share their stories. Read on to learn how whales, waterfalls, coastal childhoods, and even the pursuit of a career in economics led these six scientists and engineers to fight climate change with help from water power.
What’s your origin story? How did you get to water power?
Alisha Fernandez, Research Engineer | Pacific Northwest National Laboratory
As a little girl growing up in the Pacific Northwest, I was that kid who wanted to ‘save the whales.’ At age 6, I knew I wanted a career in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics. What attracted me to water power is how important this energy resource is around the world. Hydropower is an integral part of the Pacific Northwest. I grew up learning how important our water cycle is and how our dams help light up our homes.
Camilo Jose Bastidas Pacheco, Water and Energy Systems Postdoctoral Researcher | Idaho National Laboratory
I was born in Colombia and grew up in Venezuela. During a field visit to the Guri Dam in Venezuela, the scale and engineering of the facility and the gorgeous waterfalls nearby sparked my passion for hydropower. I later moved to the United States and earned my two degrees. But later, during a significant drought in 2009–2010, I had the opportunity to return to the Guri Dam and contribute to a cloud seeding project—adding crystals to clouds to entice rain—and develop models to assist hydropower operations. During the cloud seeding project, we did see consistent rainfall, but it’s unclear whether that was a direct result of our efforts.
Carlos Lopez-Salgado, Postdoctoral Research Appointee in the Center for Energy, Environmental and Economic Systems Analysis | Argonne National Laboratory
When I was in high school, I got to visit the El Cajón hydroelectric plant in my home country, Honduras. That plant was the country’s most important clean energy resource. Standing at a height of about 750 feet, more than double the height of the Statue of Liberty, while contemplating the immense water reservoir on one side and the discharge channel at the other was as thrilling as it was terrifying. I never thought that almost 30 years later, I would be responsible for the short- and long-term optimization of El Cajón.
Carlos Michelén Ströfer, Marine Renewable Energy Researcher | Sandia National Laboratories
Growing up in the coastal city of Santo Domingo in the Dominican Republic, I saw the ocean every day and always longed to go out there. I learned to sail at summer camp, and I was strong in math and physics. So, when I learned there was such a thing as naval architecture, I knew that’s what I was going to do. While earning my degrees, I interned at shipyards around the world, including South Korea and Brazil, and I sailed from Honolulu to San Francisco as a crew member and scientist. Ships are cool and all but, when one of my professors introduced me to marine renewable energy, I was hooked. I get to do cool ocean engineering projects and contribute to solving the climate crisis, something that I am passionate (and worried) about.
Miguel Gonzalez Montijo, Graduate Researcher in Hydropower and Water Systems Deployment | National Renewable Energy Laboratory
Growing up in the coastal town of Arecibo, Puerto Rico, water was always a fundamental element in my life. My grandfather, one heck of a swimmer and spear fisher, taught me to swim in but also to respect the ocean. However, I must confess that I never saw myself working with anything related to water. Quite the contrary, I wanted to become a civil engineer to build churches! When I moved to Seattle, I started doing research on marine hydrokinetic turbines; and my university's Clean Energy Institute truly exposed me to the transformative power of clean energy solutions.
Rocío Uría-Martínez, R&D staff member in the Environmental Risk and Energy Analysis Group | Oak Ridge National Laboratory
For my undergraduate major, I chose economics out of practicality. I thought it would get me a job in a bank or a company’s financial department, but instead, I took a class in environmental economics and found it fascinating—especially when it came to the techniques used to value goods, like rivers, that can be consumed but not bought and sold in traditional markets. In my first undergraduate research project, I applied those methods to analyze the use of the Sella River in Asturias, Spain, where fishermen were at odds with kayakers. It took more than a decade, but I eventually returned to the topic of multiple purposes of water resources with my work for WPTO.
Tell us about your current research. What problems are you trying to solve?
Alisha: I'm working in sustainable hydropower, looking at the role of hydropower in future electricity grid planning. I'm also working on grid resiliency projects, using hydropower plants to minimize the impacts of wildfires on our electrical grid and analyzing the impacts of electrical outages on drinking water systems.
Camilo: Because water and energy systems are interdependent, water scarcity can make our energy systems vulnerable. I develop tools to understand and manage this water-energy nexus, plan for future vulnerabilities, and evaluate the resilience of water and energy systems with a focus on disadvantaged communities.
Carlos Lopez-Salgado: Water is a renewable but depletable resource. Although it can be used to generate energy with very low environmental impact, it is also used for agricultural irrigation, human consumption, recreation, and navigation. Energy production is critical, but it must be optimized along with other uses. Through my work, I provide computational tools and advice to help optimize hydroelectric operation.
Carlos Michelén Ströfer: I do computational modeling and optimization of wave energy converters. The overarching goal is to extract energy from ocean waves in a manner that is economically feasible and to eventually see commercial wave farms.
Miguel: I am currently working to develop open-source technologies that can serve as benchmarks for future water power designers. The world is grappling with the urgency of climate change, and water power can offer a sustainable, renewable solution. The faster we can innovate and implement these technologies, the better it is for both our environment and our economy.
Rocío: My main project is the U.S. Hydropower Market Report, for which I collect and analyze data and communicate trends in U.S. hydropower investments, performance, and supply chains. Hydropower’s role in the electric grid is changing as the grid incorporates more variable renewables. These high-level trends can help plant owners decide which investments to make.
Have you gone through any pivotal moments that affected your career or life decisions?
Alisha: With any journey, there are difficulties as much as there are triumphs. In graduate school, it was quite challenging for me to live in a new state and take on research spanning engineering, mathematics, economics, and policy. There were times I struggled as one of the few females in my field and later as the only female student who had a family. I had two children in graduate school and now have three amazing daughters. Even though it was difficult to balance family and graduate school, when you really want to accomplish something, you do it. My daughters helped me clarify my priorities and made me want to finish my degree that much more. It's something I am proud of to this day.
Camilo: I’ve been an immigrant since I was a child and lived in multiple cities and countries. When asked ‘where are you from,’ people just want to know why you are different—why you look different, have an accent, and so on. But once you move away from a place, there is no going back; everything changes. When I made significant changes, I had a lot of doubts. For example, when I moved to the United States for my doctorate, I wasn’t sure I’d be able to finish. I learned to focus on short-term goals to complete long-term projects.
Carlos Lopez-Salgado: Having my doctoral work accepted in a high-impact journal was a key achievement and turning point in my career. Another important moment was moving to the United States with my spouse and three kids to accept a job offer at Argonne and pursue a research career at the lab. It was a new experience for all of us.
Carlos Michelén Ströfer: Because I am passionate about both research and teaching, I was always curious about the possibility of being a professor. But it is clear to me now that the national labs are a healthier and more suitable environment for me, personally, to do the type of research and effect the type of change that I want. This is where I belong.
Miguel: Experiencing Hurricane Maria in 2017 was a pivotal moment for me, both personally and professionally. Watching my family and my island suffer the devastating impacts is something I’ll never forget. During the hurricane, I studied for the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) by candlelight. I remember thinking that if I wanted to help make my homeland more resilient against such disasters, I needed to continue my education.
Rocío: My environmental economics professor put the idea of pursuing a doctorate in my head. I’m glad I listened. Being accepted into the University of California, Davis program with a full scholarship changed my life. It exposed me to people from many cultures and made me more curious.
What barriers must we overcome to increase diversity in the water power sector?
Alisha: We need meaningful mentorship for young researchers and throughout their adult careers. Active and continued connection takes time. A mentor once taught me how empowering it is to do things with your name on them. We need to set students up to present a talk or poster that’s in their name. That gives them a voice and credibility.
Camilo: We must address basic issues such as access to education and training. Here are four strategies I believe can be effective. (1) Establish inclusive pathways that empower underrepresented individuals to pursue careers in water power. (2) Expand awareness of the water power sector and its diverse career options. (3) Foster diverse role models and mentorship to support diverse individuals. (4) Have difficult conversations about the inequities that exist and our own biases.
Carlos Lopez-Salgado: To me, Argonne offers a good example of the benefits of diversity; it’s a place where we can interact and show respect for colleagues of different ethnicities and support each other. It’s also important to expedite the process to hire international scholars and professionals and promote our work among minorities—domestically and overseas—to incentivize their participation in the sector.
Carlos Michelén Ströfer: The biggest steps are recognizing that a lack of diversity is a problem, acknowledging the historical injustices that have led to that, and then genuinely wanting to affect change. I am personally very pleased with the administration’s all-of-government approach through Justice40. One big barrier I see is a lack of diversity in ocean engineering programs, which are natural places we look for prospective hires. We are addressing this by expanding our talent search to include, for example, minority-serving institutions.
Miguel: It’s less about overcoming barriers and more about building bridges. Initiatives like the GEM Fellowship program, specialized internships, and outreach programs will help cultivate diversity in water power. However, while some sectors might face issues of underrepresentation, I have found the water power sector has made great strides in fostering a diverse community. Having recently attended an international water power conference in Bilbao, Spain, I was thrilled to see a global and very diverse group of individuals across many disciplines working collectively to drive the field forward.
Rocío: Exposing younger generations to 21st century hydropower is essential to increase diversity. Internships, efforts such as WPTO’s Hydropower and Marine Energy Collegiate Competitions, or even a simple field trip to a hydropower plant can change perceptions about the industry. Hydropower is not as visible as other renewables, and there is often a misconception that nothing new is happening, which makes it especially important to communicate its central role in a reliable and sustainable electric grid as well as the variety of career pathways it offers (not just for engineers but also for biologists, economists, lawyers, and so many others).
In an ideal world, what would you most hope to accomplish?
Alisha: I want the people who come to the table and make decisions to represent different ages, genders, orientations, cultural and ethnic backgrounds, physical abilities, and beliefs. The table should look like the diversity that exists in the world. For example, access to water and electricity are two big concerns, but the people affected most are not at the table, ever.
Camilo: I want to keep developing tools that help address pressing water and energy issues in our society. In an ideal world, my work would help promote sustainable water management and ultimately make a positive and transformative impact on individuals and society.
Carlos Lopez-Salgado: First, my goal is to reciprocate the trust that Argonne leadership placed in me when they hired me. I also hope to see our models, studies, and analyses contribute to a more equitable, environmentally friendly, and cleaner energy future.
Carlos Michelén Ströfer: I want to see large-scale deployments of marine renewable energy farms and have marine energy become an integral part of the overall renewable energy portfolio. Marine energy has huge potential to make our energy portfolio more diverse, robust, and reliable, which would go a long way toward addressing the climate crisis.
Miguel: I would love to see the fruits of my research empower underserved coastal communities in Latin America and the Caribbean. The transformative potential of water power can bring about sustainable energy solutions for regions that historically have had limited access to clean energy.
Rocío: I would like to see more private capital and green energy buyers directing resources to hydropower as a key complement to wind and solar energy. As I get older, I get more satisfaction from making sure the work we do is not just another report in a drawer. I think it is crucial to translate research into useful tools for policymakers, companies, and organizations to make the energy transition happen.
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