Matt Driscoll

Solar dream at Tacoma’s Jason Lee Middle School gets $50,000 boost. More money needed

It started with one science teacher with a dream.

It was championed by three students with the same passion and sense of urgency.

Now, if all goes as planned, you’ll see solar panels being installed on the roof of Jason Lee Middle School by July 2020.

For Kathleen Hall — the teacher — that day can’t come soon enough.

“This is something that has been part of what I think is important for a very, very long time,” Hall told The News Tribune when asked about the school’s recently launched “Watts Up” solar project.

Hall described climate change — and, more importantly, halting it through education and conservation efforts — as one of her passions, and she sees big potential in helping to power Tacoma’s schools with energy from the sun.

“I think the possibilities are kind of limitless,” Hall said of the movement she hopes to inspire, which includes seeing more than just Jason Lee outfitted with solar panel technology.

First things first, however.

While the idea of installing solar panels on the roof of Jason Lee’s athletics and electives building started as a dream — and an expensive one at that, with a price tag of nearly $200,000 — earlier this month it moved much closer to reality.

That’s because on Sept. 19 Tacoma Public Utilities announced that Jason Lee’s solar project was one of two recipients of grant money from TPU’s Evergreen Options Renewable Energy Project.

The grant would provide $50,000 to Jason Lee’s solar project, which is in the fundraising stage that, if successful, would make Jason Lee the first school in the Tacoma school district to employ solar power.

The Franklin Pierce School District also will receive a $50,000 grant to build a “21 kW solar photovoltaic array at the District’s Farm to act as a solar learning lab for students,” according to the TPU press release.

At Jason Lee, news of the grant was met with excitement, from Hall and especially the now-former Jason Lee students who have led the charge.

That charge began to gain steam back in February, when Gwendolyn Newport, Sammy Firkins and Annie Son — who were eighth graders at the time — presented the project to the governor’s STEM Education Innovation Alliance.

The reaction was so encouraging, Hall said, that things snowballed from there.

Then, in May, Newport, who now attends Stadium High School, Firkins, who now attends Tacoma School of the Arts, and Son, who also attends Stadium, took the idea to the Tacoma School Board, which granted its approval.

Still, the tall task of fundraising stood before them.

That’s why the $50,000 TPU grant is such a big deal.

It turns Jason Lee’s solar project from a long-shot to a real possibility, they say.

“I feel like some people were reluctant at first, just because it’s a big project and it’s a lot of money. And it will be difficult … to find all the funds to make this happen,” acknowledged Newport, while adding that, with the grant and the early support the project has received from the community, it now feels like something “that can actually happen.”

“That’s pretty great, to me,” added Firkins. “I feel really happy to be one of the leaders of this project.”

According to Hall, there are education benefits to installing solar panels at Jason Lee that go well beyond the estimated $5,000 a year the project stands to save Jason Lee in energy costs.

The educator envisions “an incredible learning lab for kids,” where students are able to monitor the solar project’s energy production and benefits through “real-time data.”

“Schools are a perfect place, because you’re using the energy when it’s being produced,” Hall said. “Kids will be able to access that, and look at how much energy we’re producing, how much we’re using … and all sorts of things to help kids see what’s really happening.”

According to a district spokesperson, Tacoma Public Schools’ maintenance and facilities team has researched the idea and is “very excited and supportive of the project.”

“Because we do not currently use solar at any of our facilities the maintenance did quite a bit of work to understand the maintenance and upkeep for solar panels,” said Kathryn McCarthy, Tacoma Public Schools’ strategic communications and marketing manager.

“They wanted to ensure that this was something that would not be cost prohibitive to maintain,” McCarthy added. “After their research, they believe this project will actually reduce overall maintenance costs and time.”

So all systems go?

Not quite yet. There’s still a lot of money to raise.

A few weeks ago, Jason Lee’s “Watts Up” solar project began soliciting donations through the school’s PTA. While Hall acknowledged that there’s a lot of work yet to do, she said that there’s at least one more sizable grant application pending, and she’s confident the project will accomplish its goal..

“I’m optimistic about it,” Hall said, “because I think there are a lot of people around who would want to support a project like this.”