rendering Sehome High School solar panels

As Bellingham Public Schools builds each new school, the district meets ever higher standards of energy efficiency.

For more than a decade, the state has required new school buildings to meet its Washington State Schools Protocol (WSSP), which is roughly the equivalent of the well known LEED Silver rating for homes. Bellingham’s newest schools meet the state protocol: Birchwood, Cordata, Happy Valley, Wade King, Shuksan, Whatcom, Options and the soon-to-be-completed Sehome High School.

“Every project I’ve been a part of, we’ve exceeded those requirements,” said Ron Cowan, executive director of capital projects and school facilities.

The district’s Energy Star score is 90, which puts it in the top 10 percent among hundreds of school districts nationally. The newest schools aren’t the only ones contributing to Bellingham’s high overall score. Energy Star results from December 2017 show that the second-highest score among 26 buildings districtwide belonged to Columbia Elementary School. That school’s oldest wing was built in 1925. Columbia recently received energy retrofits, including new digital temperature control systems and new energy efficient heaters in the classrooms.

The latest round of energy upgrades was funded by the construction bond voters approved in November 2013. Money from the bond combined with a $310,000 state grant brought the total investment to $1.8 million to improve 13 buildings.

An especially successful energy efficiency project was completed at Bellingham High School. Heating and cooling circulation pumps at the school ran continuously until the district installed devices that kept the pumps turned off until they were needed. Bellingham High School’s Energy Star rating went from 37 about four years ago to 89 today.

The district also has replaced fluorescent lights with more energy efficient LED lights at Bellingham, Columbia and several other buildings.

“If we didn’t have bond dollars to make these energy improvements, we couldn’t do them,” Cowan said. “The district’s general fund is fully consumed with meeting teaching and learning needs.”

To top it off, the district gets its money back on any investment in energy efficiency upgrades within 10 years.

Energy improvements have been a top priority at Bellingham Public Schools since the district began partnering with Puget Sound Energy in 2008 to find ways to conserve energy. PSE provides training, energy management software and financial incentives to help the district meet energy reduction targets. The district reduced electricity consumption by more than 1.3 million kWh, comparing 2014 to 2007. That’s enough electricity to power more than 120 American homes.

The school district will continue its trend of more energy efficient schools with its next three school rebuilds, which are included in the bond measure coming before voters on Feb. 13. Three elementary schools — Alderwood, Parkview and Sunnyland — will be rebuilt on their existing sites if the bond passes. The state’s protocol calls for a number of elements that should go into school construction to reduce energy use — everything from using computerized heating and ventilation systems and lights to designing buildings in a way that brings a lot of daylight into classrooms.

Solar panels have a lot of popular appeal and certainly are a visible display of alternative-energy use, but it simply doesn’t pencil out financially to use them at all Bellingham schools, Cowan said, primarily because the district is not eligible for tax credits.

That said, the school district plans to take advantage of a one-time $5,000 state incentive by installing a solar array on the new Sehome High School. A 39kW array, pictured above, would be added to the roof thanks to a $100,000 donation from Dawson Construction, which is building the new school. The solar array could be even larger, depending on additional donations. The power generated by the panels would be used at the school, resulting in a lower electricity bill.



  1. When Birchwood school was being built there was a running photo record online. Do you have such a thing for Sehome?

    Class of 1969
    Sehome High
    Dan Stenvers

    • Hello, you can make a gift online on the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation donation webpage ( and make a note in the gift comments field, located at the bottom of the donation page, to restrict your gift for the Sehome solar project. Or you can mail a check to the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation (PO BOX 1132, Bellingham, WA 98227-1132) and put Sehome solar project in the memo field. 100 percent of your donation is tax deductible. If you have questions, feel free to contact the foundation at 360-676-6479. Thank you!

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