Energized for change

After seeing the devastation of hurricanes in Puerto Rico, grad student Miguel Gonz谩lez-Montijo is working on clean energy innovations for the future.

This has been a beautiful journey that has seen me grow first as a person, and then as an engineer.

As Hurricane Maria tore through Arecibo, Puerto Rico, in 2017, Miguel Gonz谩lez-Montijo hunkered down at home with his family. They were no strangers to hurricanes. Just two weeks earlier, a Category 5 Hurricane Irma had skirted the island, demolishing homes, causing floods and knocking out power for more than a million people. And now Maria, with wind speeds up to 155 mph, was hitting Puerto Rico dead-on. Arecibo, with its peaceful golden beaches and lush hills rising behind it, was now a maelstrom of howling wind and driving rain.

Mountainous hillscape in Puerto Rico with a small village in the valley

After Hurricane Maria, Puerto Rico endured the longest blackout in U.S. history. 鈥淚t created unity among us,” says Gonz谩lez-Montijo. “We depended on one another.”

Human-caused climate change was already leading to warmer oceans, enabling more frequent and more powerful hurricanes. But Gonz谩lez-Montijo wasn鈥檛 thinking that far ahead 鈥 he was wondering when Puerto Rico鈥檚 power grid would recover and trying to distract himself by studying for graduate-school entrance exams by lamplight. After earning his bachelor鈥檚 in engineering at the University of Puerto Rico at Mayag眉ez, he was deciding between finding a job or pursuing graduate studies.

Once the winds subsided, he and his family went outside to survey the scene. 鈥淓verything was destroyed,鈥 he says. 鈥淭he streets were filled with trees, light posts and electrical cables.鈥 It soon became clear just how bad the situation was. A full 97% of Puerto Rico鈥檚 electricity is generated by fossil fuels and must travel over rugged mountains and through dense jungle en route to its customers 鈥 and now that electrical grid was in shambles. It would be two and a half months before Gonz谩lez-Montijo鈥檚 family got their power back; others waited nearly a year. It was the longest blackout in U.S. history.

In the meantime, Gonz谩lez-Montijo decided to pursue a graduate degree in civil and environmental engineering. He knew local jobs might be scarce as Puerto Rico slowly recovered. And there was a lot he still wanted to learn 鈥 hoping to eventually return home with skills to help make Puerto Rico more resilient.

Accepted to schools across the country, he chose the 天美影视传媒 for its many cross-disciplinary research opportunities. He鈥檚 now on the cusp of earning his doctorate. His intellectual curiosity led him to clean energy, and at the UW, he found a community of people 鈥 in fields from electrical engineering and public policy to chemistry and physics 鈥 who shared his growing passion.

The UW has become a home away from home ... The best part has been the people, who have been caring, compassionate, understanding and invested since day one.

Freedom to explore

At the UW, Gonz谩lez-Montijo learned that marine energy combined with microgrids (localized power grids) could help Puerto Rico and other places recover from natural disasters. He got involved with a research project to more efficiently and economically produce marine hydrokinetic turbine blades 鈥 essentially, propellers that harness energy using the natural movement of water.

鈥淭he UW became a home away from home. I鈥檝e had the freedom to explore the research I wanted to do and have stretched my curriculum far beyond my civil engineering roots,鈥 he says, noting that he felt supported to delve into the nuances of his field and build multidisciplinary connections. 鈥淏ut the best part has been the people, who have been caring, compassionate, understanding and invested since day one.鈥

In 2013, the UW launched the (CEI), under founding director Dan Schwartz. Through CEI, students of all levels can conduct innovative research and development using top-of-the-line equipment, preparing them for the clean energy workforce. As one of those students, Gonz谩lez-Montijo is grateful for the opportunity he鈥檚 had to work directly on projects with Schwartz.

鈥淭hat man can make you believe you can do anything,鈥 he says.

Gonz谩lez-Montijo standing behind submerged turbine

Gonz谩lez-Montijo鈥檚 research at CEI includes studying turbine blades that harness energy from the natural movement of water.

CEI also gave Gonz谩lez-Montijo the chance to experience how public policy is a critical part of getting clean energy technology from the lab into the world.

As a science policy analyst in CEI’s Advanced Experience Program, supported by the Mark Torrance Foundation, Gonz谩lez-Montijo contributes to technical policy briefs and white papers for the Washington State Academy of Sciences (WSAS), which helps inform state policy.

As a policy analyst, he worked on a report about decarbonizing Washington鈥檚 aerospace sector, which was presented at a WSAS symposium. He also got to hear from the CEO of electric-airplane company magniX and meet with a Washington state senator. Having his expertise valued made an impact on Gonz谩lez-Montijo.

Gonz谩lez-Montijo laughs with a young friend

Gonz谩lez-Montijo laughs with a young friend while volunteering with a summer camp in the Dominican Republic in 2022. He continued to mentor young people with CEI, teaching elementary school students about climate science. (Photo courtesy Ryan J. Coyle.)

鈥淚f this can happen here,鈥 he realized, 鈥渋t could happen in Puerto Rico. It gave me hope that one day my voice could matter there.鈥

As an undergraduate in Puerto Rico, Gonz谩lez-Montijo had loved being part of STEM outreach. When he earned a he was able to continue that work, learning from industry leaders and doing community outreach.

He teamed up with Ricardo Rivera-Maldonado, a chemistry doctoral student and CEI fellow who鈥檚 also from Puerto Rico, to produce CEI鈥檚 first Spanish-language learning resource: a bilingual climate science fact sheet for K鈥12 students. They hoped to empower young people to discuss climate change and clean energy with their families and communities. He remembers one visit to an elementary school in North Seattle, where a girl who didn鈥檛 speak English became fully engaged when he and Rivera-Maldonado presented in Spanish. At a school in South Seattle, a young girl told them, 鈥淚 want to be a scientist someday,鈥 and began peppering them with advanced questions about geothermal energy. For this meaningful project, Gonz谩lez-Montijo and Rivera-Maldonado were honored with the Clean Energy Outreach & Service Award in 2022.

At the UW, I鈥檝e had the freedom to explore the research I wanted to do and have stretched my curriculum far beyond my civil engineering roots.

A beautiful journey

Over his UW career, Gonz谩lez-Montijo has advanced research in marine energy, including by presenting two papers at a clean energy conference in Spain in fall 2023 through a Neil and Ann Hawkins fellowship.

At CEI, he鈥檚 traded ideas with colleagues and professors in chemistry, electrical engineering and physics. And he鈥檚 shared his expertise with people in government, in industry 鈥 and in elementary school.

鈥淣ot everyone needs a Ph.D. to contribute to clean energy,鈥 he says. 鈥淭here are a lot of opportunities that allow you to participate in this exciting field.鈥

Gonz谩lez-Montijo has also been a graduate research assistant for the U.S. Department of Energy鈥檚 National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL), where he has designed and developed a marine turbine blade component that will be open-source and accessible to startups working in marine energy. 鈥淩ight now, we can鈥檛 afford to be selfish,鈥 he says.

Because NREL extended his contract, Gonz谩lez-Montijo plans to graduate after summer quarter. With his broad range of interests and experiences, he knows his future is full of possibilities, from startups to research to full-time outreach.

No matter where his next step takes him, Gonz谩lez-Montijo is thankful for the caring and compassionate people who have invested in him throughout his educational path.

鈥淭he University of Puerto Rico at Mayag眉ez gave me wings, and the UW gave me the air that made me take off,鈥 he says. 鈥淚t has been a beautiful journey that has seen me grow first as a person, and then as an engineer.鈥

Gonz谩lez-Montijo in the CEI lab

At CEI Gonz谩lez-Montijo found mentors, friends and opportunities to expand his engineering studies with advocacy and outreach.

Hope for the future

After Hurricane Maria passed, Gonz谩lez-Montijo remembers the intense humidity that clung to him like a blanket. The smell of shredded vegetation lingered on the air, clean like freshly cut grass. The familiar crickets, owls and frogs stayed eerily quiet the first night or two. Gradually, they reemerged and resumed their nighttime calls. It would take the people of Puerto Rico much longer to begin returning to life as usual.

鈥淚f we were using other sources of energy, perhaps there wouldn鈥檛 be such a dire situation every time we get a natural disaster,鈥 says Gonz谩lez-Montijo. He has hope, though. Clean energy technology is seeing huge advances that could make a difference around the world. In fact, he says, NREL is studying how to best deploy marine and wind power and microgrids in Puerto Rico. And communities there are already starting solar-powered microgrids of their own.

There is one positive that Gonz谩lez-Montijo remembers from the aftermath of Hurricane Maria: 鈥淚t created unity among us. We depended on one another. It brought us all closer together.鈥

Perhaps a clean energy future will be powered by such a supportive mindset. Gonz谩lez-Montijo is doing his part to make this a reality.

 

Story by Jamie Swenson. Photos by Dennis Wise.
Originally published May 2024.

Inside the Clean Energy Institute lab

The power of clean energy

In 2013, the UW launched the (CEI) with support from the state of Washington, an investment championed by Gov. Jay Inslee, 鈥73. The institute鈥檚 goal was to speed up the transition to a scalable, equitable clean energy future by advancing the next generation of solar energy and battery materials and devices, and improving their integration with the power grid. It was good timing: That same year, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a daunting report, warning of the consequences of unchecked carbon emissions. From the get-go, CEI would operate with a sense of urgency. Over the past decade, a combination of federal, state and private investment has bolstered its mission.

In 2017 CEI opened its , high-tech labs where researchers and industry partners can use top-of-the-line equipment to develop climate technologies. Thanks in part to philanthropic funding, the Testbeds recruited faculty and staff with deep industry experience to help innovators translate research into prototypes and market-ready products. Students of all degree levels can conduct clean energy research and development side-by-side with industry. And each year, dozens of graduate students gain fellowships and professional experiences through CEI. Soon, the Testbeds will move into a new home in聽Portage Bay Crossing, a new west-campus urban development focused on problem-solving.

鈥淚鈥檝e been a professor for a long time, and I鈥檝e never seen the motivation of the students circulating around the Clean Energy Institute,鈥 says Dan Schwartz, Boeing-Sutter Professor of Chemical Engineering and CEI founding director. 鈥淭hey know we鈥檙e putting them in a position to have an impact.鈥

Imagine a Clean Energy Future

When you support the UW鈥檚 Clean Energy Institute and innovative students like Miguel Gonz谩lez-Montijo, you help move us toward a sustainable future for everyone.