UNH engineering student envisions a sustainable future

By Olivia Marple
On October 8, 2013

  • Senior Ryan Kirby found his calling on a recent service trip to Costa Rica. Ryan Kirby/Courtesy

Ryan Kirby was astonished. Laid out in front of him were 24,000 acres of sugar cane, a sea of green stalks dancing in the Costa Rican breeze. It was certainly not a normal sight for the UNH senior but just one of the many awe-inspiring views he would encounter over his 12-day visit to the tropical Central American country. 

Kirby, a mechanical engineering major, went to Costa Rica with The GREEN Program, which brings college students to both Costa Rica and Iceland in order to provide them with real-life experiences with sustainability and renewable energy that they normally might only read about in a textbook. 

Kirby got up close and personal with a massive source of renewable energy for Costa Rica when he visited these fields of sugar cane and the attached biomass plant, which produces and sells ethanol for the country. 

Today, Kirby appears to be an average UNH student. He strides around campus sporting a backwards baseball cap and white ear buds, listening to music on his smartphone. However, once he starts describing what he discovered in Costa Rica, his enthusiasm becomes infectious and reveals his honest passion for creating new things, such as new sources of energy. 

"Growing up I always loved taking things apart, putting things together, figuring out how things worked, I just had that mindset at a young age," Kirby said when discussing how his love of the sciences came about. "Fortunately, at a high school age I knew I wanted to go into engineering. Now what type of engineering? That was the hard part; I wasn't sure. I have the mindset where I want to learn about everything possible so I can improve things, so I can make them better."

In the end he picked mechanical engineering because he found that it fit his passions the best and would allow him "to piece the whole world together."  

This desire to change the world for the better has only intensified since he returned from his summer session in Costa Rica, and the program has become a platform for him to discover other opportunities in his field. 

After arriving home, he has become an ambassador for the program by spreading the word of his experiences throughout the UNH community. Also, he has found himself an internship position with Harmony Energy Works, Inc. as a photovoltaic design engineer. In this job he analyzes the data of clients and designs a solar array setup on their house or on a pole ground mount. 

"This is a perfect opportunity for me to learn, network and engross myself in the field of solar, which I long to improve," Kirby said. "Who knows? Without The GREEN Program I may have never found this great opportunity." 

Nick Currier, one of Kirby's close friends, agreed that this trip to Costa Rica was a great experience for his friend and is now "a driving force for him." Currier said he believes Kirby's motivation to come back to America and help others through the creation of green systems is linked directly to his first-hand experience in seeing how the production of renewable energy benefitted the lives of those less fortunate in Costa Rica. 

According to Kirby, the energy department of the Costa Rican government, ICE, strives to deliver power and water to all of its citizens, no matter who they are or where they live. 

"[Costa Ricans] are a really united people," Kirby said. "They work together and always want to try to help the person next to them."

Kirby not only marveled at the seemingly ubiquitous generosity of the country but also the people's desire to live a "pure life."

"Pura vida: that's the slogan of the people," Kirby said. "And I really hold that dear to me. That had a big effect, seeing how these people live in such a clean, green way. I want to see America like that."

Sarah Shouse, a UNH Spanish student who studied the language and culture of Costa Rica when she traveled there two summers ago, underscored Kirby's assertions that, in general, Costa Ricans have a generous spirit and this encourages the protection of the environment in all aspects of daily life. 

"My host family would always give me advice," Shouse said. "Costa Ricans are very willing to accept you compared to other cultures where the people aren't as helpful."

She also said that one day her class went to an environmental protection site where turtles go to lay eggs and this experience made the great care that Costa Ricans take to safeguard every part of the natural world around them clear to her. 

But this goal to preserve the environment is most apparent in the strides the country has made in electricity and power. According to the Observatory for Renewable Energy in Latin America and the Caribbean, Costa Rica has 99 percent electricity coverage and 93 percent of that coverage comes from renewable sources. 

The GREEN Program's website underscores this by stating that Costa Rica has been "a global leader in renewable energy and sustainability" for over the past decade, which is why the creators of the program decided to start bringing over motivated college students who were interested in the science behind energy. 

Kirby said that during his time there, he and 20 other students attended classroom sessions where they learned about five different power sources: hydro, wind, biomass, geothermal and solar. After the students learned the basics of each power source during these lessons, they would then go visit a plant and experience for themselves how that kind of energy was made. 

Each student also worked on a research project of their choosing about any sort of innovation or idea for improving green systems in society. Kirby investigated solar panels and tried to find new ways to increase their efficiency. 

"I have this dream where I want to see solar panels almost everywhere," he said. "It's just that much of a good source and so I've done my own research into how to innovate them." 

Kirby hopes one day to redesign solar panels to make them more affordable because he sees their current cost as one of their major flaws. 

While Kirby had countless fun and fascinating encounters on his trip, such as playing soccer with school kids, zip lining over vast jungles, marveling at cascading waterfalls and relaxing in a mud bath, the most satisfying part of the trip for him was that it solidified what he wants to do with his life from here on out. 

"This program has been a stepping stone to expand my horizons," he said. "It helped me to build myself up and engross myself in this field, so now I can keep learning because I'm not going to be able to improve anything if I don't understand it."

Certainly, Kirby is carving out his own path in life through his aspirations in the engineering of solar panels. Many of his long-time friends are business majors, but Kirby lets his own interests guide him. 

"This is the perfect avenue because I don't want to do something just to do it," he said. "I can't just be a businessman and sell a product I don't really like. I can't do that. My heart has to be in it for me to give 100 percent. And I could be working for an oil company that could be providing energy for a lot of people, but at what cost? I don't want to do that either."

The more Kirby explains his passions, the more his dedication to and excitement for alternative energy becomes infectious and the more his conviction that this career choice is right for him becomes palpable. 

After only 12 days in Costa Rica, Kirby has taken it upon himself to emulate the ideals of the "pura vida" motto through bettering the world one solar panel at a time. 

"My main reason for going into engineering other than liking math and science is I want to help people," Kirby said. "I want to help better society and I want to help progress humanity. I want to deepen our understanding and knowledge of life."

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