July 18, 2024
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Watson College graduate student helps communities in Puerto Rico with energy needs

Rachael Kohler ‘23 to balance her role as a Department of Energy fellow and part-time graduate student this fall

Rachael Kohler ‘23 is a fellow with the Department of Energy helping communities in Puerto Rico. Rachael Kohler ‘23 is a fellow with the Department of Energy helping communities in Puerto Rico.
Rachael Kohler ‘23 is a fellow with the Department of Energy helping communities in Puerto Rico. Image Credit: Provided.

As a senior in high school, Rachael Kohler ‘23 applied to just one college: Binghamton University.

After her first year, she became a physics major and joined the Smart Energy Scholars program, which showed students how to get involved in renewable energy research.

“I found that although it’s possible to work in renewable energy as a physics major or a mechanical engineering major, it made more sense to switch majors into electrical engineering,” Kohler said. “So, although I had to leave the program in order to do that, it did set me on the right path. I realized it would be a more direct path if I switched my major. I would be able to work in that industry a lot more easily, less research and more physically doing stuff.”

The Oneida, N.Y., native loved her time as an undergraduate at Binghamton’s Thomas J. Watson College of Engineering and Applied Science and was in many clubs and organizations, including the Society of Women Engineers and Out in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (oSTEM.)

“I feel like I made the most of my time at Binghamton. I wouldn’t really change anything,” she said.

Kohler said that being accepted by the U.S. Department of Energy’s Clean Energy Innovator Fellowship was a relief. She was at a crossroads after she started a full-time 4+1 program to earn a master’s degree but then heard about this opportunity.

For years, she wanted to do something like move to Mexico and pursue solar engineering there, and this opportunity was the next best thing. She put her quest for her master’s degree on hold and moved to Puerto Rico, where she and her peers have been hosted by an electric cooperative, Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, serving the remote mountain municipalities of Adjuntas, Jayuya, Lares, Maricao and Utuado.

Margaret Cech ‘20, Kohler’s former mentor through the Society of Women Engineers during their shared time at Binghamton, is an incoming fellow for Cooperativa Hidroeléctrica de la Montaña, making two of the three fellows of this program placed in Puerto Rico for the upcoming year Binghamton alumni.

During Kohler’s time there, she has made an impact. She helps develop microgrids in the rural mountains using rooftops of small businesses and residences to create resilience centers for community members who lose electricity most often and are the last to be reconnected after emergencies or blackouts.

These centers allow residents to do things such as charge their phones, run their medical devices and refrigerate necessities such as medicine.

“It creates change on a really tangible, identifiable, local level,” Kohler said.

It can be difficult to approach the electrification issue in Puerto Rico as a big-picture problem, but she and her team have found that going into communities can make a world of difference for individuals.

Kohler said providing hands-on solutions to electrical blackouts during events such as heat waves and hurricanes can save lives.

“You’re not changing things for the whole island,” she said. “You’re not changing things for the whole country. But, it is a matter of life and death for these small villages.”

Kohler also has appreciated the networking opportunities throughout her fellowship. She has met with higher-ups, like the federal Department of Energy Secretary Jennifer Granholm, who she has encountered multiple times and anticipates meeting again in the future.

“Being able to jump right to the top as a fellow has been something I really didn’t expect and it has been incredible,” she said. “Meeting someone and even being recognized by someone in the presidential cabinet is incredible.”

Another benefit of living in Puerto Rico is that Kohler’s ability to speak Spanish, which she minored in as an undergraduate, has become a lot better.

It has been such a positive experience for her that she recently renewed her contract and will continue working in Puerto Rico for another year.

But that’s not all. Kohler is continuing her 4+1 program part-time, virtually, at Binghamton University this fall. She will be doing an independent study tailored around relevant information to the work she has done in her fellowship.

“I figured if I could feed two birds with one scone, then it would be all the better,” she said.

She is considering taking a project management course in the winter and will be doing her master’s project in the spring, which likely will involve microgrids.

“They [the work in her fellowship and her master’s degree] align so closely that it would make sense to do them at the same time while I have this unique position and access to all these resources,” she said.

Kohler hopes to continue making great strides in Puerto Rico while balancing graduate school at Binghamton.

“Honestly, it’s been incredible,” she said. “I don’t think there’s any other opportunity that could have offered something like this.”