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Worthington food truck inspires clean energy possibilities for U of M engineering students

Exposing students to real-world renewable energy projects and possibilities can inspire the next generation of Minnesota’s renewable energy professionals. The World Mart food truck project in Worthington recently served up exactly that to a group of engineering students from the University of Minnesota Twin Cities.

The industry’s bright future

Eric Buchanan, director of renewable energy at the University of Minnesota’s West Central Research and Outreach Center, welcomes engineering students to explore their solar-fitted trailer that charges one of their electric mowers.

The US Department of Energy reports that clean energy jobs grew 3.9% in 2022, adding 114,000 jobs nationally. Careers in clean energy now account for over 40% of all energy jobs in the United States. University of Minnesota electrical engineering professor Paul Imbertson is well aware of industry trends and the importance of exposing students not only to the technologies but also to possibilities in their field. He recently arranged for a group of students from the Department of Electrical and Computer Engineering on the University of Minnesota’s Twin Cities campus to travel to the West Central Research and Outreach Center (WCROC) and the University of Minnesota Morris for a day filled with solar arrays, wind turbines, green hydrogen, energy storage, and lots of hands-on learning.

“It really is amazing to see what Morris and the West Central Outreach Center have done,” stated Imbertson. “They're doing cutting-edge science and engineering. It was quite amazing for my students to see all this happening there.”

Leading up to the trip, students from Imbertson’s class had been involved in a joint project with the Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Southwest RSDP) and Clean Energy Resource Teams. The project connected students with World Mart, a food bus in Worthington, that is seeking to eliminate the emissions and noise of the food truck’s portable gas generator. Imbertson and his students have been helping World Mart explore solar and electrification options. As a result, the Morris trip was organized to expose students and World Mart’s owner to other examples of how solar panels were being fitted on mobile units. The tour provided a closer look at trailers fitted with solar panels that are used to charge devices or equipment stored inside, which can be applied to the World Mart food bus model.

World Mart is an innovative and entrepreneurial project of Nathalie Nkashama, who sought to deliver high-quality and culturally based food in the Worthington area. The World Mart motto is “Serving Others - Bridging the Gap." They provide culturally relevant meals and groceries to the multicultural Worthington community.

World Mart food truck owner, Nathalie Nkashama, showing fresh produce options to Professor Paul Imbertson and Amethyst O’Connell.

Amethyst O’Connell was among the student group examining the solar trailers in Morris. O’Connell took part in the World Mart project from its beginnings in 2022, mentoring peers as they researched the feasibility and designed a battery system for installing solar panels on top of the Worthington food truck.

When asked about student roles in the project, Imbertson explained, “This was a cross-disciplinary project involving people from many walks of life and with different understandings and skills. Amethyst was able to join them all together with their unique abilities to communicate effectively.”

O’Connell and several fellow students also conducted community outreach at events alongside World Mart in Worthington, opening the door for people to ask questions. They created a hands-on activity for kids to construct a paper solar bus of their own. To O’Connell, the World Mart bus delivers more than just terrific food.

Miniature solar World Mart bus created by a child at the Worthington International Festival.

“Overall, the bus sends an important message,” says O’Connell.  “Putting solar panels on the food truck is a very loud declaration of love. It’s like saying, ‘I care about our future as a community and I care about us weathering the impacts of climate change together.’”

New paths ahead

The next steps for the World Mart bus project is a battery installation scheduled for spring 2024, electrification and selection of the optimal solar array unit.  Even after the project concludes, the positive impact of the Southwest RSDP project will continue to resonate in the Worthington community as well as in the careers of the students who worked on the project. Plans are already underway to share system designs with groups working to bring renewable energy options to other food trucks around the state.

Two University of Minnesota students remain actively involved in the World Mart project. As for Amethyst and the others, they have now graduated and are looking to make their own positive impact through their blossoming engineering careers.

For Professor Paul Imbertson, opportunities like the World Mart bus project reveal the side of engineering that is typically hidden for most students: the human impact. “This project brings forward real-world applications. It shows that with renewable energy in particular, it’s not all about technology. It’s about community, it's all about people, it’s about nature. It's all about all these things together within the renewable energy project.”

Explore more real-world clean energy solutions!

In 2024, the Clean Energy Resource Teams awarded seed grants to 45 projects, helping communities harness clean energy in their own backyards.

Discover what's possible for your community

Rachel Mitchell, March 2024

Rachel Mitchell is an AmeriCorps Member and Sustainability Project Coordinator with the University of Minnesota Extension Southwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

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