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Country's newest solar factory opens on the Iron Range

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Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk holds up a completed solar panel.
Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk holds up a completed solar panel Thursday, September 13, 2018 during an employee training day at the new solar plant in Mountain Iron, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Mountain Iron, Minn., bills itself as the "taconite capital of the world." It's home to Minntac, the nation's largest iron ore mine.

Now the town of fewer than 3,000 has something else to boast about: the opening of the state's only solar panel factory, and the first to open in the U.S. in 2018.

Heliene opened its first solar panel plant in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, eight years ago. Now, it's investing more than $18 million to get a 25,000 square foot factory up and running on the Iron Range, after another manufacturer abandoned it last year.

President Martin Pochtaruk gets asked all the time, "Why Mountain Iron?" His answer, he said, is always the same.

"Why not? The same question was asked to me when we started a factory in Sault Ste. Marie. It is a place in need of industrial diversification. It's a place with viable labor."

And the state of Minnesota invited him to come, in April, 2017, he said, after the previous occupant, Silicon Energy, closed.

"We were somewhat stuck with a solar manufacturing facility that failed," said Mark Phillips, commissioner of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation.

Alan Oferosky watches an automated machine solder bus wire
Alan Oferosky watches an automated machine solder bus wire into a panel Thursday, September 13.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

Heliene operated the factory with the old equipment for a while. But earlier this year the state of Minnesota authorized $3.5 million in loans to expand the facility and purchase state-of-the-art equipment. IRRRB funded half of the loan, DEED the other half.  

Phillips knew it would be tough to lure another manufacturer to Mountain Iron, where mining jobs provide some of the highest paying jobs in the state. That can make attracting workers tough.

"So we feel very fortunate about Heliene coming here, because we had a problem.  We had an empty factory. They were shopping for incentives. And we think we did pretty well."

A centerpiece of the newly refurbished plant is a robotic white arm, equipped with suction cups, that quickly assembles individual solar cells into a grid-like pattern on each module, before the solar panel quickly moves down the automated production line.

"These robots are very accurate, they are very fast, and they are very reliable," said Pochutaruk.

And very expensive. The German-made machine cost $1.1 million alone.

But the sophisticated equipment has enabled Pochtaruk to open what he calls the most efficient solar panel factory in the country, able to crank out 1,300 panels a day. One panel takes 42 minutes to manufacture from start to finish.

Jared Brincefield and Allen Mart inspect a nearly completed solar panel
Jared Brincefield (right) and Allen Mart (left) inspect a nearly completed solar panel for imperfections Thursday, September 13, 2018 at Heliene's plant in Mountain Iron, Minn.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

That productivity is part of why Pochtaruk believes Heliene can succeed in Minnesota where other solar panel factories have failed.

Those previous companies also heavily relied on a Made in Minnesota subsidy that was repealed by the state legislature last year.

Heliene is also looking to fill a void in a growing marketplace.

"There are no manufacturers in any other of the Midwest states. So this is an underserved industry from the domestic manufacturing point of view," Pochtaruk said.

Already, 60 percent of the panels Heliene manufactured last year in Canada were sold in Minnesota.

Most of that demand is coming from community solar gardens. They're a way for customers to purchase solar electricity without having to install panels on their homes.

After a slow-down in solar development after the tariffs on imported panels were announced, projects like solar gardens are starting to move forward again.

Minnesota alone is expected to account for more than half of all community solar development in the country this year, according to a recent report from the Solar Energy Industries Association.

Jason Michael and Dylan Cianni inspect portions of an unfinished panel.
Jason Michael (left) and Dylan Cianni (right) inspect portions of an unfinished panel.
Derek Montgomery for MPR News

A Colorado-based company called SunShare is currently building three new community solar projects in Minnesota.

Founder and CEO David Amster-Olszewski said he used Heliene panels for projects he's finishing now in Colorado.

Currently, he said, it's difficult to find American-made solar panels. But he said there are advantages to buying domestically.

"By producing the panel closer to where you're building the system, you reduce a lot of the shipping costs, and also breakage from handling, that you would have from getting foreign products."

Heliene's Minnesota factory is the first solar panel manufacturer to open in the U.S. since the Trump administration placed 30 percent tariffs on imported panels earlier this year.

Those tariffs step down 5 percent every year for the next four years, when they expire.

Heliene's Pochtaruk said he made the decision to invest in Minnesota before the tariffs were announced. He said they will benefit the Minnesota plant, but have hurt his Canadian factory, where he has had to lay off most of the workers, he said.

Several other companies have announced plans to open facilities in the U.S. since the tariffs were announced.

But it's unclear how many will actually follow through, said Jade Jones, a senior analyst at Wood Mackenzie.

"It doesn't make a lot of economic sense to produce solar modules in the U.S., because you can do it more cost competitively in other regions," she said. 

Heliene believes a new community solar program in Illinois, could provide the next big new market for the company. Nationwide community solar is forecast to continue to grow for the next four years.

That's good news for Mountain Iron. Heleine plans to employ 120 workers when the factory hits full production in October.

"I will have roughly a 5 million dollar payroll," said plant manager Joanne Bath. "I grew up in this area, with the mining up and down, the cyclical [nature] of the mining operations, and it will be a great asset to the community."