Hilltop Heritage MS first to get solar panels
Rhubarb views Hilltop solar panels

More than 250 solar panels now atop Hilltop Heritage Middle School make it the district’s first school to use solar energy to power some of the school.

A long-time dream is now a reality for Hilltop Heritage students Gwendolyn (Gwen) Newport, Samantha (Sammy) Firkins and Annie Son, and science teacher Kathy Hall.

Now high school juniors, Sammy and Gwen returned to Hilltop Heritage school in September, along with Tacoma Rainers mascot Rhubarb, to celebrate the occasion as they watched workers hoist panels onto the roof.

When Mrs. Hall first shared with her class an opportunity to present at the Governor's STEM Alliance meeting, Gwen was immediately interested and excited about the opportunity. Fueled by her passion and commitment, Gwen formed a team with Annie and Sammy and went to work expressing the importance of solar panels and energy conservation, a venture that started in 2019.

“Gwen brought up the idea of presenting at the Governor's STEM Alliance Meeting,” said Annie. “We didn’t know much about solar at that time, but as we kept learning more we imagined what it would be like to actually replicate this idea of solar panels on schools at our very own school.”

Hall gave her students information about the suitability for a solar installation on a school. They discussed the big idea that schools are the perfect location for solar panels for 3 reasons:

  1. They have large unobstructed roofs.
  2. They produce power during the day when schools have the highest usage, so it is a direct benefit.
  3. It creates a living laboratory for students to learn firsthand about solar energy and potentially get them interested in a career in the solar energy field.

“With the numerous benefits regarding solar energy, I wondered why I haven’t thought of this before,” Annie said. “Once we received overwhelming support after we presented to the Governor, we decided it was time to make it into a reality, and Watts Up! was born."

The students launched the Watts Up! project to help fund the solar panels. They rallied their classmates and together with Mrs. Hall, they held spaghetti feeds, fun runs, car washes. Mrs. Hall even challenged her students to raise $3,000 and, if they met the goal, she would dye her hair purple. The students surpassed that goal, raising more than $4,000 to support the cost of the project.

Sammy, Annie and Gwen have presented to more than 200 people over the past year. They met with Governor Inslee at the Governor's STEM Alliance meeting and presented to the Tacoma School Board members. They’ve put in more than 25 volunteer hours to speak to groups such as the The Climate Reality Project, the Sunrise Rotary Club and a national panel for "students leading the charge on solar in schools" with Generation 180.

As they work to convince adults they should listen to a group of teenagers with a great vision for helping combat climate change, they continued the charge interviewing with in multiple news outlets and featured on shows such as This is R City episode with the Tacoma Rainiers.

Annie, Sammy and Gwen were awarded the City of Destiny Award for Environmental Sustainability from the City of Tacoma for this project and their efforts.

"We as a generation, as young people, since this is our future, we really need to step forward and work on climate change and be activists," said Sammy.

"Mrs. Hall taught us how to make our effect on this planet the most positive it can be. Our hope is that Watts Up! will help Washington State reach its goal of 100 percent clean energy," said Gwen.

Moving forward, Hall will teach students the practical application of solar energy through engineering different solar machines and learning how solar cells work. They will also be able to use data in real-time to see the impacts of solar on the school. They’ll learn how much energy the solar panels are providing and explore ways to increase the impact through applying other energy conservation applications at their school to reduce their energy consumption.

Hall explains, “Our first step was applying for the Evergreen Options grant through Tacoma Power. We worked with TPU and Sun's Eye Solar to develop a plan for the installation.”

In addition to the Evergreen Options grant, the project was also awarded $30,000 towards construction and $15,000 for educational support from the Bonneville Environmental Foundation who also provides educational support for teachers to use the system as a learning tool for students.

Pierce Conservation District's Green Partnership fund included their contribution of $25,000 for the project. Following that Trans Alta grants from the Centralia Coal mitigation awarded $120,000 in support of the project.

With the help of donations to the Hilltop Heritage PTA and grants from Evergreen Options Program through Tacoma Public Utilities, Bonneville Environmental Foundation, Pierce Conservation District’s Green Partnership Program and TransAlta Centralia Coal Transition Board, the total raised was $240,000.

Tacoma Public Schools funded the $120,000 difference through a combination of capital bond dollars and additional donations.

“We're very excited about being the first school with solar arrays,” Hall said. “It will not only save energy but provide a living laboratory for renewable energy for all TPS students.”

Hilltop Heritage’s solar panel project will be the first solar installation in the school district. The school will save over $5,000 per year in energy costs with the new solar panels.



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