Canadian company Heliene, a 12-year-old manufacturer of solar panels, broke ground this month for a $ 21 million expansion at its Mountain Iron, Minnesota facility, roughly doubling capacity.
After completion, the workforce at the plant will increase by 60 to around 150 people.
CEO and co-founder Martin Pochtaruk said last week that the expansion and modernization of the facility will come with the acceleration of Minnesota's solar industry and the Biden government's commitment to renewable energy and the growing movement of the utility industry and businesses towards a lower carbon, cleaner economy.
Minnesota's solar industry plans to increase its share of electricity generation from around 2% to 10% by 2030.
More than 50% of Minnesota's electrical energy was generated from renewables, primarily wind and nuclear, for the first time last year. They don't release carbon dioxide, which pollutes the atmosphere and drives a warmer climate, while there is growing evidence of the environmental and economic costs of climate change.
“Investing in this ultra-efficient new production line will significantly increase the delivery rate of American-made modules while eliminating costly supply chain risks for customers,” said Pochtaruk.
Heliene took over and expanded the Mountain Iron plant in 2018, several years after the closure of another solar company. It's been a tough year amid the Trump administration's tariffs on solar components, most of which are made in Asia.
“At the moment the macro environment is good,” said Pochtaruk, whose company is increasing sales and double-digit rates and expects sales of well over 100 million US dollars this year. “Imports still make up around 70% of the solar system supply from Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. We also have competition from other US manufacturers such as Hanwha, a large South Korean company that manufactures in Georgia. Another is Mission Solar in Texas. “
The project is funded for $ 21 million, including $ 11.5 million from sources in Minnesota. Approximately $ 5.5 million of this comes from the Xcel Energy renewable energy fund, which goes to the city for infrastructure and related expenses.
The remainder is a 3% loan from the state and the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB). Heliene funded its 2019 Range inauguration with approximately $ 10 million in private capital and a $ 3.5 million loan from the state and the IRRRB. It took over a factory that had previously been abandoned by another solar manufacturer. The market has improved significantly over a decade as the industry has scaled, aided in part by government tax breaks.
Pochtaruk's primary concern is finding enough workers for entry-level jobs that start at $ 15.50 an hour plus benefits up to $ 35 an hour for production engineers.
“The competition for jobs is primarily mining”, Pochtaruk, “We are in an expanding industry. Solar is the cheapest energy source for electricity. Nobody wants to burn coal. It makes no economic sense. And it harms people” and that Environment.”
Almost all of the arrays produced by Heliene at Mountain Iron go to grid-connected, community-owned “solar gardens” and commercial solar parks with up to 40 megawatts.
Pochtaruk said cold-weather states are well suited for solar energy because “electricity is generated from light and not from heat. Electricity generation from solar cells decreases as the temperature rises.”
The sun doesn't always shine. The rapidly improving battery technology is one way of storing and releasing solar generated electricity. Also, utilities are switching from coal to wind and solar power, offset by natural gas powered power plants that can ramp up and down quickly and emit about half of coal's greenhouse gases.
“Heliene will create more jobs in Minnesota while building manufacturing supply chains in the solar industry,” said US Senator Tina Smith. “We can either lead or follow the clean energy transition. Projects like this show that Minnesota is ready to take the lead.”
In the last 15 years, the state has built up a renewable energy and energy saving industry with around 60,000 jobs in addition to ethanol.
Pochtaruk, 59, a physicist who worked in Canada's steel industry for 20 years before becoming a solar entrepreneur, said he has lost most of his hair since starting Heiene in a volatile industry that has skyrocketed since 2019 is.
Heliene, which has also just opened a plant in Florida, has more than doubled sales since 2018, from around $ 45 million. Pochtaruk said the company was profitable. Heliene is based in Sault Ste. Marie, on the eastern edge of Lake Superior.
“Heliene is one of the fastest growing solar panel manufacturers in North America and we couldn't be happier that they are expanding into Mountain Iron,” said Chisholm State Senator David Tomassoni. “The state's investment in Heliene will create jobs … and help us bring solar energy to the rest of the state and the nation.”
Heliene's expansion is a good private-public investment in a cleaner growing economy.