Photo depicting individuals from Sustainable Burien and Highline High School's Environmental Club at the entrance to a building.

South End Students Lead Push to Install Solar Panels at Highline High School

by Ben Adlin

Dozens of solar panels will eventually cover the roof of Highline High School’s new building in Burien under a student-led plan to build the largest solar-power system ever at a South King County public school.

Installation of the project would occur next year if the project meets its January 2022 fundraising deadline. Once complete, the 100-kilowatt solar array would not only produce clean electricity but also provide experiential, STEM-based learning opportunities for students, who could monitor the system’s flow of energy in real time.

In addition to seeking public grants and funds from private foundations, the students are also gathering individual donations through the Highline Schools Foundation. A related GoFundMe campaign launched earlier this year described the project as “living proof that solar energy is attainable in any neighborhood, even those with modest per capita incomes. And YOU will help us get there!”

The idea began with a question last summer from then-Highline senior Nha Khuc, who was in the midst of an environmental internship through King County. What would it take, Khuc asked one of the professionals she met in the program, to put solar panels on Highline’s new roof?

“She gave me a short answer and suggested that we keep in touch,” Khuc recalled of the interaction. So she seized the opportunity and ran with it. By August, Khuc and the contact she’d met, Mikhaila Gonzales at clean energy nonprofit Spark Northwest, were meeting over the phone and working to recruit a bigger team. 

At first, the project seemed daunting. “I was kind of questioning myself a lot,” Khuc said in a recent interview. As she looked ahead to her senior year, she knew school officials had plenty on their plate already with a crushing pandemic that disproportionately affected the South End. “I don’t want to add on another project for them,” she remembered thinking.

Gonzales put together a presentation to answer some of Khuc’s questions about what adult decision makers would likely want to know regarding a plan to install solar panels on Highline’s new building. “My goal was basically to help turn an idea that a student had into an actionable project,” Gonzales said.

“The gap would be mostly convincing administrators and other people that Nha and her team have the credibility and the ability to get funds for the project and write the grants and do the research,” she added. “They have the ability to do those things — they just needed an adult to convince other adults to listen to them.”

Gonzales also felt the underlying idea was a good one. Spark Northwest has years of experience working on solar projects, she said, “and we think this one’s worth doing.”

At a local climate action meeting, Khuc met Elly Trinh, a lead volunteer for the group Sustainable Burien, which is focused on building a sustainable community in the city. Trinh and another Sustainable Burien volunteer, Jodi Escareño, heard the students’ proposal and agreed to serve as project managers.

“I think of myself as a connector, and I’ve worked in quite a few industries and sectors throughout my career thus far,” Trinh said. She graduated from college at Seattle University in 2013 with degrees in business and information technology, then in recent years “dug deep into the green industry.” Initially interested in zero-waste systems and minimalism, her attention was soon drawn to green building and solar energy. 

“If you’re out there interested in the solar industry … there’s no guide,” she said. “I’ve grown my network in this arena [enough] to feel confident to lead this project and connect the students to all the folks that I’ve met while I was navigating this.”

Khuc, one of the officers of the school’s environmental club, had also begun bringing other students into the fold. At the very first meeting with Sustainable Burien, all four of the club’s officers showed up to support the proposal.

After talking to Trinh, Khuc said, she realized that even though the district had its hands full with the pandemic, “it really shouldn’t stop me from moving forward with this project.”

Roof plans for Highline High School’s new building.

The solar array is expected to cost roughly $250,000 at the outset, but it would begin making money back almost immediately, according to projections arrived at with the help of outside experts and school district representatives. The system is estimated to reduce energy costs by more than $11,000 in its first year and then $340,000 over 30 years.

According to the team’s early timelines, the project was to be fully funded in spring of this year and installed by November. Those dates have been pushed back, but so far the students are taking it in stride.

Most of the delays so far have been around fundraising. It’s taken time to identify and apply for various public grants, for one, and the team has also had to navigate convoluted rules about how they can actually receive different types of money. For example, public grants would need to be taken in through the school district itself, Trinh said, while Highline Schools Foundation is separately holding funds from individual donors.

The group hopes to raise half the cost from public grants, $20,000 from community donations, and the remainder from private foundations with a bit of help from the district’s capital budget. 

“Even though it’s kind of slow and we’re like, behind the timeline,” said Khuc, “just thinking about how a lot of community members have been reaching out to us, supporting us, and how the school district has been trying to keep us in the loop is very motivational to me and to other students who are taking our time away from work and away from school to do this project.”

Khuc has since graduated from Highline — she’s starting her first year at the University of Washington, where she plans to to study environmental science — but plans to see the solar project through to the end.

“For me, that’s a role I’ve told myself to keep, even though I’ll be a former officer of the environmental club,” she said. “I will still find time within my college schedule to commit to this project and work on it until we see solar panels on the Highline High School roof.”

Kim Nguyen, another former Highline environmental club officer headed to UW this fall, said that while the project isn’t yet finished, being a part of the effort has already been an opportunity for personal growth. “In the beginning, we didn’t think we’d really get this far, to be honest,” she said, adding that the team initially was “a bit skeptical because it is a bigger project than any other projects we’ve done.”

Students have spent months engaging with district officials, sending out press releases and community notices, and coordinating regular group meetings.

The effort has not only been student-led, Nguyen noted, but also driven by People of Color.

“It is minority-led,” she said. “I think it’s really important since the green, environmental STEM field isn’t that diverse yet.”

Trinh at Sustainable Burien agreed. “I want this article to really, really highlight the capacity and the leadership skills of BIPOC women,” she told the Emerald. She emphasized the importance for South End communities “to have trust in … our leadership skills as minority leaders of color.”

The group is immigrant-led, too. Khuc introduced herself as born in Vietnam and said she moved to the United States in 2013. Trinh is also originally from Vietnam and arrived in the Seattle-area in 2009. (Nguyen, for her part, was born and raised in Burien.)

From left to right: Rod Sheffer, executive director, Capital Planning & Construction (1969 Highline graduate); Jodi Escareño, Sustainable Burien; Elly-Hien Trinh, Sustainable Burien; Samantha Quiroz; Jordan Powers; Gladis Gallardo; Brenda Gallardo; Selena Nguyen; Nha Khuc; Ruth Assefa; Kim Nguyen; Ricardo Gonzalez Ceja .(Photo: Rosie Eades, Highline Schools)

Scott Logan, chief operations officer for Highline Public Schools, said the students “have, from Day 1, just been an impressive group.”

“They run every meeting that we have. They’ll send out an agenda that says, ‘This meeting is starting at 3 o’clock and ending at 3:20,’” he said, noting that most adults don’t do meetings that well. “They are organized and you can’t get them flustered.”

When the students pitched the solar proposal to the school board, Logan added, he said they gave “the most amazing presentation I’ve ever seen students do.”

He acknowledged that fundraising might take time but said the school board has indicated it’s interested in supporting the project. “It’s going to happen one way or another,” he predicted. “This is going to be a $250,000 to $350,000 project, you know. That doesn’t happen overnight.”

Khuc and Nguyen say they’re not going anywhere until the project is done, but they’re also clear about the importance of making room for — and encouraging — incoming leaders. Khuc said the environmental club’s new officers have been attending team meetings and are “actively involved in whatever we do,” Khuc said.

“We’ve been preparing them to kind of take on the role of the person at the school who will be advocating for this project within the district,” she explained. “We as former officers will kind of be in the supporting roles, like Elly, to kind of lead them on … giving them support and telling them what our experience was like.”

The team also hopes to share their lessons learned with other student groups interested in pursuing environmental projects at their own schools, which Khuc hopes will make future undertakings less daunting.

“The most important thing is to make connection,” she recommended. “There’s always people who can kind of point us to the right direction.”

Ben Adlin is a reporter and editor who grew up in the Pacific Northwest and currently lives on Capitol Hill. He’s covered politics and legal affairs from Seattle and Los Angeles for the past decade and has been an Emerald contributor since May 2020, writing about community and municipal news. Find him on Twitter at @badlin.

📸 Featured Image: From left to right: Jodi Escareño, Sustainable Burien; Elly-Hien Trinh, Sustainable Burien; Selena Nguyen; Samantha Quiroz; Kim Nguyen; Rod Sheffer, executive director, Capital Planning & Construction (1969 Highline graduate); Ricardo Gonzalez Ceja; Nha Khuc; Brenda Gallardo; Ruth Assefa; Gladis Gallardo; Jordan Powers. (Photo: Rosie Eades, Highline Schools)

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