Photo depicting individuals from Capital Planning & Construction, Sustainable Burien, and Highline High School's Environmental club outside of Highline High School.

Solar Project Devised by Highline High School Students Wins District Approval

by Ben Adlin

Members of Highline High School’s Environmental Club got the official green light last week to proceed with their plan to build a 100-kilowatt solar array on the roof of the school’s new building in Burien, marking a major milestone in the student-led renewable energy project. 

The array’s 252 solar panels are scheduled for installation in September, the students announced at an online briefing Saturday, Feb. 5, with a ribbon-cutting event planned around the start of 2022–23 school year.

District board members unanimously approved up to $425,000 in spending for the project last Wednesday, Feb. 2, with one calling it 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 conceived of it during an internship with King County in the summer of 2020. She then contacted local experts, enlisted the help of classmates, and worked to build a coalition of community supporters.

“At the beginning of this project, I wasn’t sure if I have the ability or I am capable of doing this project. And I didn’t really know much about solar panels,” Khuc said at Saturday’s briefing. “But I just kind of took the opportunity and see what I can learn from it.”

Once completed, the project will generate approximately 115,400 kilowatt hours of energy annually, according to district documents. That’s about 14.3% of Highline High School’s annual electricity consumption. At an average statewide electricity rate of just over eight cents per kilowatt hour, that’s about $9,500 produced by the rooftop array.

The team has already secured a state grant of more than $110,000 and raised nearly $12,000 from community donations. Another $150,000 in potential public and private grants could reduce the total cost to the district to a bit more than $150,000.

Lower energy expenses from the solar array are expected to pay off the project cost within the equipment’s 25-year warranty period, according to the students’ presentation. District documents say that could take slightly longer — about 28 to 38 years.

Kim Nguyen, who was Highline’s Environmental Club’s treasurer last year and also now attends UW, told the board that the progress represents “not only an achievement for Highline High School, but also for our district, our community, and the South Puget Sound area as a whole.”

More than a dozen local groups supported the project, with community group Sustainable Burien and nonprofits Spark Northwest and EarthGen lending technical and procedural assistance. Others included the Highline Schools Foundation, the Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, the Rotary Club of Burien/White Center, Burien People for Climate Action, the Sierra Club of Washington State, Key Tech Labs, and the Mountains to Sound Greenway Trust.

“We have been involved with this team — with these wonderful young people — for the past year and a half,” said Elly Trinh, a lead volunteer for Sustainable Burien, “and I would do it over again and again and again.”

Joe Van, a member of the Highline Public Schools Board of Directors, described the project on Saturday as “a joint effort between our students, our district, and our community.” 

“This is the way that all of our projects should go,” he said. 

Under a bond proposal that would go before voters this fall, three schools — Evergreen and Tyee high schools and Pacific Middle School — would be on the list to be rebuilt, Van added. “It would behoove us to have that, you know, carry this legacy on with with those additional schools”

The seven students who presented at Saturday’s event — all of whom were young women — said the project gave them real-world experience and helped them grow.

“I learned how to work in a professional setting, how to do community outreach, and I’ve learned about the power of my voice and the power of teamwork or collective action,” said Khuc, who’s studying environmental studies at UW. “This project is an invaluable experience that I’ll never forget”

Jordan Powers, the school’s current Environmental Club president, said the experience “gave us the confidence to … speak our voices and really be passionate and be activists for things we care about.”

Not all the students involved are from Highline. Helana Alemayehu, an eighth grader at Meadowdale Middle School in Lynnwood, got involved in the project after hearing about it through a family member. During the question-and-answer portion of Saturday’s presentation, she was asked what advice she had for people who might not feel like they could make a difference.

“I feel like you just have to try,” Alemayehu replied. “Like, don’t think of the 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, hoping to select a contractor in March or April. Installation is projected to begin in August and wrap up sometime in September.

Once the array is up and running, it will provide not only electricity but also an opportunity for STEM-based learning. “I feel like there are so many students out there who genuinely would love this,” said Powell, the current club president, “or are just interested in learning more.”

Khuc and the rest of the team are also working to document their journey and eventually publish a case study and how-to manual. It’s aimed at helping other students learn from the experience and encourage them to see their own ambitious goals as achievable. Khuc told the Emerald that the group is working to complete a 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 consultants for feedback and discussing any changes or additions that need to be made,” she said.

At Saturday’s presentation, she stressed the importance of adaptability and persistence.

“I think it’s important to have an open mind and be ready for whatever life throws at you,” she said. “Take the opportunity, take the challenges, and learn from all of those.”

Editors’ Note: An earlier version of this story mistakenly said the project would produce 114,400 kilowatt-hours of energy. It would in fact produce 115,400 kilowatt-hours. The Emerald regrets the error.

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: 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, courtesy of Highline High School Environmental Club.)

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