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Student works to power up solution
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ST. PAUL, Minn. - Chad Helland's mission in life has thus far taken him from his hometown of Albany to St. Paul, Minn. and now to Miami.

He hopes his next stop is Central America.

An engineering student as University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, Helland was one of three students last weekend to participate in the annual Clinton Global Initiative University at the University of Miami.

Bill Clinton hosted several arena-sized discussions, but Helland made certain he got a close-up view of the former president.

"I got within 10 feet of him," Helland said, "but the Secret Service wasn't overly friendly. It's strange to have some big bald guy staring at you with a gun."

The sophomore, whose fields are mechanical engineering and environmental studies, is considered an up-and-coming social entrepreneur, based on a project he is helping to develop with his school's chapter of Engineers for a Sustainable World. The team is working to create an affordable solar energy system targeting households in the developing world that would otherwise not have electricity.

The process is as simple as bouncing sun off a mirror that's roughly the size of the satellite dishes outside of TV stations. Common here, it's not something you see in Third World nations.

"The key is to concentrate more sun on less panel," Helland said. "It's not really a pure invention, but rather a matter of repurposing."

That concentrated heat would then be transitioned into a usable form of power to implement into a micro grid. He said the process will be tested in St. Paul this summer at the home of a professor.

"Hopefully, in a year or two, we can take it somewhere that's not too far, like Central America or South America," Helland said.

His sights, however, are global, based upon what he heard from a speaker at the conference who came from Nepal.

"He said 20 kilowatts could power a household in his country. Well, we're talking about 1,000 kilowatts from just one dish, which could power a whole village," Helland said.

Beyond more power, this type of green technology could also generate a better quality of life.

"These countries wouldn't have to have all of their kids out in the fields," he said. "They could focus more on education, which could lead to economic growth."

Laura Dunham, who teaches an entrepreneurship course and met with the students before their trip, described Helland and the other two engineering students as "bright and eager coat-and-tie kind of guys." She said she was impressed with their big-picture outlook.

"What a great gift - the power to do something that can make a difference in the world," she said. "For them to be thinking in such a big way is affirming in such a big way."

Helland said his lofty green thoughts were shaped through exposure to the simple life in rural Albany, where he was raised and graduated from high school.

"I've always been environmentally conscious," he said. "I suppose that's what comes from working on a dairy farm for six years.

"When I saw the opportunity to help design a solar-panel project, I jumped at it. It allows me to continue to connect with nature."