The Future's So Bright

  • Story and Photos by: Kerri McDermid

Photo: Silver Creek High students, Mason Williams and Kimberly Fung discuss an upcoming solar installation.

Through student support, St. Vrain Valley Schools launched a solar energy project that will bring 3,740 panels to three schools and save the district approximately $5 million.

“I wasn’t into science as a young kid, but it really started for me in third grade,” said Kimberly Fung on a hot afternoon last May, in between classes and studying for finals. “Eagle Crest Elementary became a Green Star School which really opened my mind to what composting could do for the world and how we could save these natural resources.” From that spark of curiosity in third grade, Fung has developed a strong drive to have a positive impact on her community and a continued commitment to energy conservation and environmental sustainability.

Now a senior at Silver Creek High School, Fung was one of five students who were part of a student solar committee that was instrumental in helping Dara Ward, Energy and Sustainability Manager for St. Vrain Valley Schools, bring a major solar energy project to the district.

“When you can make a change that is positive not only for your world and your community, either small or big, it is something to really hold on to,” said Fung. “There are a lot of people in the world who are just waiting to hear from you and support your success.”

Through their work, and a partnership with Xcel Energy and Microgrid Energy, Ward and the students negotiated a deal to bring 3,740 solar panels to three schools in the district – Erie Middle, Niwot High and Red Hawk Elementary – that will cover 79 percent of the energy needs for those buildings and save St. Vrain approximately $5 million over 30 years.

The project is a significant achievement, not only for the large cost savings that will safeguard the district from rising utility prices, but also the advanced learning opportunities for students at all levels.

“For a large school district like St. Vrain Valley Schools to be willing and able to be part of this kind of energy and resource conversation effort, it really helps the rest of us. They are not only leading by example, they are saving money and creating jobs,” said former Colorado Governor, Bill Ritter, now Director of the Center for the New Economy at Colorado State University. “Also, it helps kids understand that we have to pay attention to this. We have to pay attention to how we consume resources, to costs and to emissions.”

Echoing Governor Ritter’s sentiment, Mason Williams, a junior at Silver Creek used his experience on the student solar committee to dive deeper into the economic and business aspects of energy planning and conservation.

“Before joining the student solar committee, I had been doing independent research on how climate change is impacting our planet – not just scientifically, but economically. From a business aspect, it is a major job creator,” said Williams. “One thing that I really learned through this experience was how important the prep work was to the planning process, such as figuring out how much it is going to cost, what it is going to save us and how we can negotiate a deal that is best for our district.”

Last spring, Fung and Williams presented the solar project proposal to the Board of Education who unanimously approved the project, not only for the operational and cost-saving measures, but also the educational value it will bring to current and future students.

“For me, there was a personal kind of reward for being a part of something outside of school for the benefit of our district,” said Williams. “Once the project was approved, it was very rewarding to know that everything you’ve done and all the time you spent has lead to something impactful and important.”

Fostering young leadership in sustainability and energy management is essential to economic success now and in the future. St. Vrain Valley Schools offers many opportunities for passionate students to engage in work addressing important environmental questions, including the Energy Academy at Mead High School, the Green Star Schools program and independent research opportunities in classes across the district.

“We think this is one of the great challenges of our future – developing a workforce that will adapt to a 21st-century energy system,” said Ritter. “It is important because we believe there will continue to be change in the energy economy and the workforce will need to respond. To establish that mindset early on in our students is really the best way to get a jump-start on the transitioning workforce and a strong energy future for our communities.”

For Colorado and St. Vrain, the future looks bright as student engagement and environmental leadership continues to build across the district.

“It is a priority for St. Vrain to continue identifying and embracing real-world problem solving, design thinking programs and other offerings for our students so they are well-equipped to excel in a growing energy and sustainability industry,” said Dara Ward. “As we expand our renewable energy reach and bring sustainability solutions to the forefront through environmental awareness, STEM education and building operations, St. Vrain is serving as a model for other school districts and communities around the nation.”

By the Numbers: Sustainability

in estimated annual savings for the 3,740 panel solar installation across three school sites, equivalent to 3,953 residential homes’ annual electrical usage.
is saved annually through school engagement resources and conservation behavior programs.
is saved annually in lighting upgrades such as LEDs and lighting controls.
of St. Vrain Valley schools are participating in sustainability programming.

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