Diego Ponce de Léon Barido: Powering up a low-carbon world

National Geographic Explorer Diego Ponce de Léon Barido uses data collection and engineering to identify gaps in energy efficiency across societies, and help fill them.

For the first 16 years of his life, National Geographic Explorer Diego Ponce de Léon Barido grew up in Mexico City. There, in a city where the connection between wealth and opportunity is pronounced, he was unable to ignore the socioeconomic disparities surrounding him. Access to education, green space, and art were all regulated by class. 

While he and several of his elementary school friends completed high school, others dropped out. As Ponce de Léon Barido continued his education, some childhood friends became young taxi drivers, while others joined gangs. These juxtapositions allowed him to recognize from an early age that his access to opportunity was sheer luck.  

"From a young age I remember my parents telling me how lucky and privileged I was to have access to opportunity, and the importance of seizing opportunities not only for yourself but also for your community," he recalls. 

"The jarring contrasts that Mexico City offers have allowed me to always step into a different perspective beyond my obvious personal one,” he says.

Today, he still spends his time looking outside of himself. As a sustainability scientist and engineer, he has dedicated years to surveying low- and middle-income countries, collecting energy data and developing technology to make power cheaper, more efficient, and more environmentally friendly. 

Ponce de Léon Barido began his field research as a teenager, when he took an interest in the impact of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) on Mexican farmers. While Ponce de Léon Barido was completing high school thousands of miles from home, in Wales, NAFTA had made headlines as a landmark opportunity for Mexico's economy.

A young Ponce de Léon Barido read that the treaty’s impacts were quite different for small scale subsistence farmers. He spent a summer in Oaxaca doing economic and anthropological research with families and farming communities he met in the area to learn more. 

While he was doing this for a thesis project, Ponce de Léon Barido saw firsthand how the trade deal was, contrary to reports in the mainstream media, disrupting the local agricultural economy and livelihoods. 

Despite his efforts, Ponce de Léon Barido received a C on his project. “That was humbling," he laughs. "They said 'this is not economics, this is anthropology,' and that was not true. There are many approaches to economics." But Ponce de Léon Barido was more interested in the bigger takeaway. 

"It was a really interesting reminder that grades, to a great extent, don’t matter—I already had gotten so much more out of the essay." 

He's been steadfast in forging his own path. Ponce de Léon Barido founded his own energy data networks and solutions company, Xinampa, while completing his Ph.D. at the University of California, Berkeley. The new business landed him a National Geographic Energy Challenge Grant.

With this support from the Society, he took his power-optimizing ideas to Nicaragua. By installing sensor networks in household and business appliances, primarily in the capital city of Managua, he was able to inform the Inter-American Development Bank (IDB)—the largest source of development finance in Latin America—of opportunities for improved energy efficiency that simultaneously improve energy equity. 

The project won one of five regional Latin American awards from the IDB’s IDEA competition, and took second place in a regional competition for deployments at the intersection of energy innovation and gender.  

"Women were the ones actually running the business, or managing the energy and budget accounting of the house, so they accrued a lot of the program benefits" he says. In the end most of the project’s beneficiaries were women. 

They also comprised most of the team of local technicians Ponce de Léon Barido trained and employed to carry out the program. “Hiring women wasn’t by design, it was a side-product of hiring the best and most promising applicants that could deliver good technical work and strong communication.”

He attributes the project’s success to the talent he thoughfully employed, and that didn't necessarily mean hiring formally-trained experts, he explains. Engineering veterans advised him to only hire fellow engineers. "From the beginning I didn't do that," Ponce de Léon Barido remembers. He sought help from people familiar with and directly-affected by issues in the area.

He stresses that "investing" in getting to know the local community and hiring people who are connected to its problems is critical to the project’s success.

After Nicaragua, Ponce de Léon Barido began working with Xinampa to close energy data gaps in Latin America, Southeast Asia, and Africa. Xinampa deploys sensor networks and builds cloud infrastructure for closing energy data gaps, which plays a critical role in related government decisions. 

With further Society funding, his company built Latin America’s first digital observatory for environmental justice.

Ponce de Léon Barido also actively uses his energy data expertise as the director of technology and analytics at the largest provider of clean energy in California's East Bay. 

His latest undertaking signals a sense of optimism for a sustainable future, specifically in relation to effects wrought by the COVID-19 virus. In collaboration with a global group of artists, and educators—the majority of them fellow National Geographic Explorers—Diego imagined what a post-pandemic world would look like if sustainable behaviors we adopted during lockdown were to remain. 

Presented as an online book titled Constructive Visions, the website launched in November of 2021. The idea came to him in early 2020, when much of the world faced its most stringent lockdown measures. In the eyes of a sustainability scientist, slowed human traffic could mean a healing opportunity for the planet. 

"The thought was like 'what would happen to our city if we moved it a little bit slowly, we consumed less of the things we don't need, if we were more mindful about those resources we use?'" he remembers. 

Constructive Visions can and should help youth, teachers and parents digest the impact of the pandemic with some degree of positivity through its mosaic of audio, visual, and written media, Ponce de Léon Barido says. 

Each chapter is rooted in a blend of scientific and traditional knowledge; whether painting a realistic, yet hopeful picture of cleaner communities and rivers, or highlighting stories of wildlife as told by the animals themselves. The book is being translated into a classroom curriculum, already shown to thousands of students in 82 countries around the world, as a catalog of silver linings amid a difficult two years. 

"It's really easy to talk about COVID as a public health disaster, which is what happened, but it was so many other things," Ponce de Léon Barido encourages. He insists that there are actions we can all take to support a more sustainable world moving forward. 

"Very basic things we can all do like eating less meat, being more mindful of the things we consume, the transportation we take every day, and being engaged in our local politics," he says, are "big things that can help reduce local impact." 

And while no single person can achieve a global-level change, Ponce de Léon Barido highlights that it's small, collective action that will add up to big momentum. 

"The global impact will come if you make sure you're having an impact at community level." 

This Explorer's work is funded by the National Geographic Society
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For the National Geographic Society: Natalie Hutchison is a Digital Content Producer for the Society. She believes authentic storytelling wields power to connect people over the shared human experience. In her free time she turns to her paintbrush to create visual snapshots she hopes will inspire hope and empathy.

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