Photograph by Sofia Ruzo
Current City: Peru
What did you want to be when you were growing up?
For me, it was never what I wanted to be, but rather what I wanted to do with my life. I've wanted to be just about everything from a zoologist to an actor to a diplomat, and even a monk. However, what I want to do with my life has never changed: I want to be a force of positive change in the world.
How did you get started in your field of work?
There is really no exact start, but rather, a lifetime of small coincidences that have led me to the world of geothermal energy.
As a boy I would spend my summers on the family farm in Nicaragua, which rests on top of a volcano called the Casita Volcano. I was able to see firsthand the power of the Earth's heat. Later, as an undergrad at Southern Methodist University (SMU), these childhood memories inspired me to take a volcanology class. The first time I opened my class textbook, there on the page was a photo of the Casita Volcano! This created a personal connection with the subject that awakened my passion for geology. My desire to learn more about the Earth's heat, and how we can harness it for power, eventually led me to the SMU Geothermal Lab, where I have studied, researched, and pursued my career in geology for the past six years.
What inspires you to dedicate your life to energy issues?
Energy can turn deserts into fertile cropland, alleviate the struggle for resources, and permit seven billion people to live longer, healthier, more comfortable lives. Simultaneously, a nation's economic and environmental prosperity, as well as its international power, are also tied with how that nation uses and creates energy.
Energy is a kingpin problem. By solving our energy issues, we simultaneously take care of other major world problems. The way I see it, by dedicating myself to energy, I am also fighting for the environment, national security, international relations, overpopulation, and economic problems, to name a few.
Although energy can do all of this, it often comes at a cost to our health and environment. This is where green energy comes in. Although I support all green energy development and believe that the right answer lies in developing local resources, given its base-load nature and its tremendous potential synergy with the oil and gas industry, I believe geothermal is the energy world's sleeping giant.
Good business sense and good environmental practices do not have to be mutually exclusive. It is our job as consumers to ensure that the market demands both practices from corporations. I see geothermal as the best way to reach this end, so it is easy to want to dedicate my life to it—one solution that solves multiple problems.
What's a normal day like for you?
One of the most exciting, and simultaneously challenging, aspects of my line of work is that there is no "normal day." One day I could be working in the lab, analyzing and organizing data on a computer. The next day I could be rushing from one class to another, working on homework and on my thesis. Lately, my days have been spent out in the desert, temperature-logging wells. The coming months will bring weeks spent high up in the Andes searching for old mining holes, as well as days spent in the Amazon rain forest studying the geology of the area. What has become normal for me is to expect the unexpected, and welcome new adventures on a daily basis.
Do you have a hero?
My hero is St. Francis of Assisi, one of the world's first environmentalists. He was ahead of his time, actively working to forge harmony between mankind and nature. Through his words and actions he exemplified the view that humanity forms a part of the natural environment, and as such we are also stewards responsible for taking care of it-a view that is as applicable now as it was in the 13th century.
What has been your favorite experience in the field? The most challenging?
My favorite: Near the small town of Chancos in Peru's Central Andes, I was collecting a water sample from a thermal spring when I noticed an old man staring at me. After a while, he approached me and asked in broken Spanish with a thick Quechua accent what I was doing, where the water came from, and where it goes. At this point, a crowd began to gather around us and listen intently as I described the water cycle.
Just as I finished my explanation, three women in the crowd screamed. A small snake was slithering near them. I rushed toward it, picked it up, and took it to a safe place away from the crowd. When I turned around, no one in the group had moved-they were all staring at me wide-eyed and whispering to each other, saying, "Shaman, shaman."
I didn't know what to make of it at the time. Fortunately, a professor of Andean studies later told me that in my explanation of the water cycle, I had inadvertently described the three worlds of Inca mythology: Hanan Pacha (a higher world), Kay Pacha (this world), and Ukhu Pahca (lower world). Then, after explaining geology, an Ukhu Pacha subject, to the group, I had handled the snake. Snakes are greatly feared in the Andes, and are seen as the guardian spirits of the Ukhu Pacha.
The most challenging: During fieldwork for the "Geothermal Map of Peru," my wife and I were finishing up a temperature log of an abandoned oil well. While manually reeling up the 1,300-foot cable, we discovered thick crude oil covering the line, which had to be cleaned off. Dealing with thick crude oil is unpleasant enough. However, dealing with it in the open desert, burning sun, 138 degree Fahrenheit temperatures, and sand-laden heavy winds was a totally different story. It was like being in a cross between an oven and a sandblaster—not to mention we were in dark blue safety jumpsuits, helmets, and steel-toe boots.
What are your other passions?
There are too many to list, but to name a few: exploring, traveling, history, zoology, art, painting, silversmithing, writing, and cooking.
What do you do in your free time?
All of the above.
If you could have people do one thing to help change the way we use and generate energy, what would it be?
To stop antagonizing each other, stop the politics, and work together.
Energy and the environment have become political issues that far too quickly evoke irrational emotional responses that have their roots in political ideologies. Being "green" is not a issue of "left" or "right." It's a human issue.
I am convinced that the future of green energy lies in the hands of oil and gas companies. The oil and gas industry has spent over a century mastering the production of resources from the subsurface. Because the development of geothermal energy uses virtually the same tools, technology, skill sets and personnel as oil and gas companies, geothermal represents an untapped market with minimal barriers of entry for the oil and gas industry. This is especially true when you consider that the technology that uses abandoned oil and gas wells to produce base-load, green geothermal energy already exists. For many, it may be surprising to find out that Chevron is the world's largest producer of geothermal energy.
If you look at these facts above, it makes sense why both environmentalists and oil and gas companies need to work together—in the end, everyone benefits from a united front.
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National Geographic Young Explorers Grantee Andrés Ruzo is back in the field doing research to create the first geothermal map of northern Peru. Follow along as his collaborator and wife Sofia reports from the field about their ensuing adventures.
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In Their Words
Energy is a kingpin problem. By solving our energy issues, we simultaneously take care of other major world problems.
Andrés Ruzo is back in the field doing research for a geothermal map.
Andrés Ruzo demonstrates how to finish up a temperature log of an abandoned oil and gas well in Peru.
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