by Ben Adlin
Highline Highline School Environmental Club members were given the official green light last week to move forward with their plan to build a 100 kW solar array on the roof of the new school building in Burien, marking a milestone in the student-led renewable energy project.
The installation of the 252-array solar panels is scheduled for September, students announced in a webinar on Saturday, February 5, with a ribbon-cutting event planned for the start of the 2022-2023 school year.
District board members unanimously approved up to $425,000 in project spending last Wednesday, February 2, with one describing it as an example of “why we need to listen to student voices and empower student voices.”
The solar project is the brainchild of former Highline Environmental Club president Nha Khuc, now in her first year at the University of Washington, who envisioned it during an internship with King County in the summer of 2020. She then contacted local experts, enlisted the help of classmates, and worked On building a coalition of community supporters.
“At the beginning of this project, I wasn’t sure if I had the ability or was able to do this project. I didn’t know much about solar panels,” Khok said at Saturday’s briefing. “But I took the opportunity and see what I can learn from them.”
Once completed, the project will generate approximately 114,400 kWh of energy annually, according to district documents. This represents about 14.3% of Highline High School’s annual electricity consumption. With a statewide average electricity rate of just over eight cents per kilowatt-hour, a rooftop kit results in about $9,500.
The team has already received more than $110,000 in a government grant and raised nearly $12,000 in community donations. Another $150,000 in potential public and private grants could reduce the total cost of the district to just over $150,000.
The lower energy expenditures from the solar array are expected to pay off the cost of the project within the device’s 25-year warranty period, as per the students’ presentation. County documents say that could take a little longer — about 28 to 38 years.
Kim Nguyen, who was Treasurer of Highline’s Environmental Club last year and now attends UW, told the board that the progress is not only an “accomplishment for Highline’s Environmental Club, but also our district, our community and the South Puget Sound region” as a whole.
More than a dozen local groups have supported the project, with the Burien sustainable community group and the nonprofit organizations Spark Northwest and EarthGen providing technical and procedural assistance. Others include the Highline Schools Foundation, the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Burien/White Center, Burien People for Climate Action, Sierra Club of Washington State, Key Tech Labs, and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.
“We’ve been involved with this team—with these wonderful young men—for the past year and a half,” said Eli Trinh, one of the lead volunteers at Burien Sustainable, “and I will do it over and over again.”
Jo Fan, a board member of Highline Public Schools, described the project Saturday as “a joint effort between our students, our district and our community.”
“This is how all our projects should go,” he said.
Under the bond proposal to be presented to voters this fall, Fan added, three schools — Evergreen and Tyee High School and Pacific Middle School — will be on the list to be rebuilt. “We have to carry on this, you know, this legacy with those additional schools.”
The seven students who showed up at Saturday’s event – all young women – said the project gave them a real-world experience and helped them grow.
“I learned how to work in a professional environment, how to communicate with the community, and I learned the power of my voice and the power of teamwork or teamwork,” said Khok, who studies environmental studies at the University of Wisconsin. “This project is an invaluable experience that I will never forget”
Jordan Powers, the current president of the school’s environment club, said the experience “gave us the confidence… to speak up with our voices and to be really passionate and to be active in the things we care about.”
Not all participating students are from Highline. Helena Alemayehu, an eighth grade student at Meadowdale Middle School in Lynwood, got involved in the project after hearing about it through a family member. During the question-and-answer portion of Saturday’s presentation, I was asked what advice you would give to people who may not feel they can make a difference.
“I feel you should just try,” Alemayehu replied. “Like, don’t think about setbacks, because everything is going to have a setback. We just have to go for it.”
In the coming months, the project team will begin the bidding process for the solar array construction contract, with the hope of selecting a contractor in March or April. The installation is expected to begin in August and end sometime in September.
Once the matrix is operational, it will not only provide electricity but also the opportunity for STEM-based learning. “I feel there are a lot of students who genuinely love this, or are just interested in learning more,” said Powell, the current club president.
Khuc and the rest of the team are also working to document their journey and publish a case study and how-to guide at the end. It aims to help other students learn from the experience and encourage them to see their ambitious goals as achievable. Khoj said emerald The group is working to complete the first draft by June for review by the rest of the team. “After that, we hope to use the summer to have more meetings with our advisors to get their opinions and discuss any changes or additions that need to be made,” she said.
In Saturday’s presentation, she stressed the importance of adaptability and perseverance.
“I think it’s important to have an open mind and be ready for whatever life throws at you,” she said. “Seize the opportunity, seize the challenges, and learn from all of these.”
Ben Adlin He is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He has covered political and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been a contributor to Emerald since May 2020, writing on community and municipal news. You can find him on Twitter at Tweet embed.
📸 Feature image: Left to Right: Rod Schaefer, Executive Director of Capital Planning and Construction (Highline graduate 1969); Jodi Escareño, Sustainable Burien; Elly-Hien Trinh, Burien Sustainable Company; Samantha Queiroz Jordan authorities Gladys Gallardo Brenda Gallardo Selena Nguyen Nha Khoj Ruth Asfa Kim Nguyen Ricardo Gonzalez Sega. (Photo: Rosie Eades, courtesy of the Senior High School Environmental Club.)
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