A team of University of Washington researchers is trying to help get the lights back on in Puerto Rico, where Hurricane Maria caused historic damage. It is a deeply personal project for one of the engineers.

“I grew up in the island, I have strong connections to the island, and I am really motivated to help out in any way I can,” said Lilo Pozzo, an associate professor of chemical engineering at UW.

She pretty much dropped what she was doing this past fall and focused her efforts on her homeland.

“We saw this as an opportunity to reimagine the energy of an island that really has a lot of solar resources to tap into,” Pozzo said.

She and her team are trying to calculate what it would take to reconstruct a cleaner, more resilient power grid in Puerto Rico. They visited the island over Thanksgiving break, tested solar technology, and interviewed people about how the lack of electricity is affecting their health.

“There's definitely an opportunity to transform the island into a clean energy hub essentially. The problem is the island is in an economic crisis,” Pozzo said.

Her work is supported by the UW Clean Energy Institute, where academics and companies look for ways to move power systems away from fossil fuels.

A different team helped find a new use for worn-out batteries from King County Metro hybrid buses.

They repurposed the power cells to help energize an internet service provider that serves remote islands in British Columbia.

“This would be the first spot for a new idea to get really tested at a scale where you might be able to say, ‘Hey, that would be a new way to do a solar cell, that could be a completely new way to make a battery,’” said Daniel Schwartz, director of the Clean Energy Institute.

Pozzo's team hopes to provide valuable data to power companies and government agencies doing the on-the-ground reconstruction in Puerto Rico. The goal would be to build a grid that doesn't rely on just a few central power sources, that can rebound when lines are knocked down, and moves the nation to a cleaner future.