Students help install final panel.

An after-school club activity has led to permanent change with real results. On the sunniest June afternoon imaginable on top of Bellingham High School’s roof, a contingent of students, graduates, staff and professional installers placed the first solar array in Bellingham Public Schools.

In 2017, several students in the BHS Environmental Club calculated energy use around their school. Much to their surprise and regret, the recently installed jumbotron electronic screen in the BHS Commons was found to consume as much energy every day as a Whatcom County home. With that disturbing bit of data, the students decided to find a way to offset that consumption and wrote a grant to the Bellingham Public Schools Foundation to install solar panels on the school’s roof.

Their grant proposal was accepted and they were funded $2,500 if they could raise $2,500 in matching funds. Two years later, with many twists and turns along the way, and with the ultimate help of the school’s ASB and PTSA groups, the money was matched and work could move forward.

BHS science teacher and advisor to the Environmental Club Joe Balsiger wants to give credit to the many people in many corners of the district  who helped bring this to fruition. The list of those involved included the passionate students, now graduates, who had the drive to find and fix a problem. He listed the supportive school and district staff who said’ yes’ to the project all along the way, helping to problem-solve the funding and troubleshoot logistics. And finally, he mentioned the local companies Western Solar and Skyline Roofing, for bringing this multi-year vision and project to reality.

Mike Anderson, director of Buildings and Grounds, believes that the BHS solar panel project was ‘all positives.’

“From our perspective,” Anderson said, “it was not harmful to the structure, had no cost, only payback, and was a benefit to the students. We viewed it as a good chance to support teaching and learning with just a little of our time.”

“The students were involved in bringing this about and learned important facets of project planning and implementation.”

Dana Hickenbottom, project manager of Western Solar in Bellingham, took time to answer some questions we had about the logistics of the project:

How did you come to work on this project with BHS? 

Hickenbottom: I started working with the BHS Environmental Club about three years ago when I was the Technical Support Engineer with itek Energy, the local solar panel manufacturer at the time.  Joe Balsiger, the clubs director, approached me at a Career and Technical Education Advisory Board meeting and inquired about what it would take to put solar on the roof of Bellingham High School.  I went in and met with the Environmental Club and we put a plan together for how to make it happen.  I helped the students prepare solar production estimates, calculate the economic value of the project, and outline the many educational benefits of having a solar array on the roof of the high school.  This helped them write grants and secure funding for the project.  Unfortunately we weren’t able to put the final pieces in place to get the system installed that year and it kind of lost momentum after I stopped working at itek Energy.  Luckily we were all determined to make it happen and the project began to take shape again once I started working at Western Solar and Joe had an enthusiastic group of Environmental Club students ready to pick the project back up again.  And now there is a wonderful solar array up on their roof that will offset a portion of the buildings energy use and provide incredible learning opportunities for years to come.
Do you see value in working with our youth on projects like this?  Why?

Hickenbottom: Absolutely! I believe there are numerous benefits when students are able to collaborate and work alongside industry professionals. This particular experience gave the students a glimpse into the various careers available in the solar industry.  Not only did they take part in the system design and solar production estimates but they also had an opportunity to write grants, fundraise, assist with the project permitting, and put the finishing touches on the actual installation of the solar panels. When students get to see the process from start to finish they are afforded such a great opportunity to identify areas of interest within the solar industry that they may want to pursue as a career. The clean energy industry is such a dynamic, fulfilling, and growing field so my hope is that the more exposure students have to this industry at a young age, the more likely they’ll want to become clean energy professionals in the future. We certainly need as many motivated and creative people working in this field to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems.

Another great aspect of this project is that it provides continuing educational opportunities for Bellingham High School students for years to come. The system includes online monitoring so teachers and students are able to use the solar performance data to design lesson plans and carry out experiments.  It will be fun to check in periodically to see what types of learning opportunities they’ve come up with.

What do you think were the biggest takeaways for the students?

Hickenbottom: I hope the students were able to see that no matter where your strengths lie, there are opportunities to work in the solar industry and put your skills to good use.  I also hope they were able to see the value of collaboration on projects like these. We wouldn’t have been able to get this project done without the persistence and hard work of all the parties involved.

Though fastening down the last panel was more ceremonial, it felt fitting to give them an opportunity to get their hands on it since they had all been part of the process through the years. It had been years in the making..


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