Members of Highline High School’s Environmental Club with advisers and community partners standing in front of the new school. Photo courtesy Highline Public Schools.

The idea sparked in Nha Khuc’s brain back in the summer of 2020 during an environmental internship prior to her senior year was:

“What would it take to put solar panels on the roof of the new Highline High School?” 

As we previously reported, the school’s Environmental Club teamed up with Sustainable Burien to propose building a 100KW solar system on the school, which they say would save $341,010 in energy costs over 30 years of use.

Approximately 42 Zoom meetings and 11 presentations later, Khuc and the club – which she led in 2020-21 – won a $110,100 Washington State Department of Commerce grant. The grant is part of $3.5 million in grants to state and local government agencies to install solar panels at public buildings in communities throughout the state. The state said that the 29 projects will provide over 2.2 megawatts of solar and will produce more than 3 million kWh annually—enough to power about 280 homes.

This week, Highline School Board members voted to approve a project budget of up to $424,975 in capital bond funds for the students’ 100-kilowatt (99.9) solar panel system – including the grant, plus $11,300 in community donations students raised, and future energy credits.

This summer, 252 solar panels will be installed on the roof of the south wing of the recently-constructed new Highline High School in Burien.

The solar installation is sized to maximize the benefits of Washington’s net metering program, generating approximately 115,400 kWh in its first year of operation, which is the equivalent of $10,000 in energy savings. As a result of the successful award of the Commerce grant, the solar array is estimated to achieve a simple payback within the 25-year warranty period of the installed equipment.

Khuc and other Class of 2021 grads Kim Nguyen, Ruth Assefa and Selena Nguyen served on the grant writing committee and helped with outreach after graduation and during their first year of college. Now they have passed the baton to current student leaders, including club President Jordan Powers. Powers, Khuc and Nguyen spoke at this week’s school board meeting prior to the vote.

“I hope this project inspires other students to know that your dreams can become a reality and that your voice matters,” Powers said.

Khuc and Nguyen thanked the many volunteers, organizations and school district staff who provided the support the students needed – even during a pandemic and remote learning – to fulfill their dream of installing the first and largest solar power system in south King County on top of their new high school.

Mikhaila Gonzales from clean energy nonprofit Spark Northwest was Khuc’s original contact, and Elly-Hien Trinh and Jodi Escareño of Sustainable Burien, helped the students manage many aspects of their public awareness campaign.

Trinh said, “I am so impressed that these young women of color have already contributed so much to their community and left a productive legacy. They’ve learned so much about electric grids, equitable procurement, and grant research and writing processes. They are creative problem solvers and powerful advocates for climate justice for all. They are an inspiration.”

The board action report approved by the school board includes this statement:

“The staff cannot overstate the importance and service value of this project to these young leaders and to the larger community that has answered their call for support as a way of addressing climate change, environmental responsibility, conservation, and responding to inspirational youth leadership.”

The students also received support from Sustainable Burien, Burien People for Climate Action, Seattle Southside Chamber of Commerce, the City of Burien, Highline Schools Foundation, Spark Northwest, Weed Warriors Nature Stewards Program, EarthGen, ECOSS, Key Tech Labs, Rotary Club of Burien/White Center, and Sustainability Ambassadors.

“I congratulate the students from the Highline High School Environmental Club and their community partners, for instigating and electrifying efforts to raise funds and write grants to build their dream of a 100-kilowatt solar power installation on the roof of our new high school building,” said Scott Logan, Highline’s chief operations officer. “Thank you to the Department of Commerce for helping fund their dream of a better future.”

Since Nha Khuc first asked her big question in 2020, the students:

    • Attended 42 Zoom meetings, including club, research and grant writing meetings,

    • Made 11 public presentations with district staff, school board members, elected officials, supporters and donors, all on Zoom,

    • Received encouragement and advice from more than 15 community volunteer organizations who listened to presentations, wrote letters, and sponsored grant applications,

    • Received grant writing and system design support from Highline Public Schools,

    • Raised $11,300 through 120 private donations,

    • Won a $110,100 grant from the Washington State Department of Commerce to Highline Public Schools, announced in January,

    • Applied for a $25,000 grant from Puget Sound Energy, sponsored by Weed Warriors Nature Stewards Program, and

    • Applied for $125,000 in renewable energy credits from Seattle City Light by Highline Public Schools.

Next Steps:

    • You’re Invited! An “Update & Celebration of the HHS Environmental Club Solar Project” is scheduled for Saturday, February 5, at 10:00 a.m. Email to request the Zoom link.
    • Contractors will be invited by Highline Public Schools to bid on the installation.

    • Sustainable Burien volunteers are working with club alumni to write a case study and share information with students from other cities and states who inquire; a Lynnwood middle school student is helping the group with the Update & Celebration event.

    • The HHS Environmental Club members hope to host a ribbon cutting in September or October when the solar panels are installed and hooked into a net metering system that shows the flow of energy in real time.

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