EST&P Alum Nico Cerquera Follows the Sun's Trail from Pgh to Portland
Nico Cerquera (MS '16), dismounts his bike at a campground in Worland, Wyoming. He’s tired and ready to rest, but he’s invigorated. Today alone, he’s biked about 50 miles, his total journey nearing 3,500. He asks the campground host for a spot to put up his hammock—which he carries in his one, small backpack. “That’s the first time someone’s asked for two trees in this campground,” the host tells him.
Cerquera is used to these kinds of unusual responses. He’s gotten just about every comment from, “You’re crazy,” to “Very minimalistic,” to “Wow—so hardcore.” But it’s not just the fact that he’s traveling from Pittsburgh to Portland that piques interest—it’s the fact that he’s using only solar energy to power his needs.
“When I’m at a campsite or making a stop, people see me with just a small bag and a solar panel,” says Cerquera. “They’ll ask me what my story is and why I’m doing what I’m doing.”
As a recent graduate of the Energy, Science, Technology, and Policy master’s program at Carnegie Mellon University, Cerquera has spent a lot of time studying energy from various perspectives. His main interest is in energy systems modeling, but he’s also working to develop an inexpensive solar-powered light bulb. Once finished, anyone—particularly people in rural areas where it’s too expensive to run electric lines—will be able to use it in their household.
“The technology exists,” explains Cerquera, “people just need to know that they can use it. The goal of my trip is to get people to ask themselves, ‘Where are my resources coming from and who is administering them?’ and then to take action over the answers to those inquiries.”
Most of Cerquera’s nights are spent at national forests. In the morning, he puts his solar panel on his bike to charge, and by 9 a.m., his phone is already charged. Many people express interest in the panel. Many are unaware that it’s even an option, but just seeing Cerquera makes them think they might want to try it. The solar panel also allows Cerquera the freedom to be wherever the sun is—instead of stopping at a coffee shop or rest stop to charge up, he’s free to really experience his environment.
The main barrier to adopting renewable energy sources is behavior, he says. People stick to what they know, so he’s using his own behavior to demonstrate the feasibility of powering daily life in environmentally conscious ways.
“I really believe in energy independence and think it’s an important message to spread,” says Cerquera. “I want to let people know that they can be more conscious of how their energy habits impact the environment and other people in their everyday lives.”
Cerquera has already seen an impact just in his group of friends—several of his peers have bought bikes and use them to get to work. Other bicycling travelers want to use a solar panel on their trips or pack lighter next time. If everyone began taking action in these simple ways, the impact at the large-scale would be apparent.
“From my journey, I’m hoping that people will learn to look beyond what they already know and use resources that they have more agency over and that shrink their environmental impact,” says Cerquera.
In the fall, Cerquera will return to Carnegie Mellon to proceed with his solar-powered light bulb project. He will also be a teaching assistant for Energy System Modeling, a mechanical engineering course. But until then, with his backpack strapped on, his solar panel on top, and his phone unplugged, he continues his journey to Portland disconnected from the wall, connected to the world around him.