Canadian Heliene, a 12-year-old solar equipment maker, kicked off a $ 21 million expansion to its Mountain Iron, Minnesota plant this month, which will roughly double its capacity.
When completed, employment at the plant is expected to increase from 60 to around 150 people.
CEO and co-founder Martin Pochtaruk said last week that the expansion and upgrade of the plant dovetails with the acceleration of Minnesota’s solar industry and the Biden administration’s commitment to energies. renewables and the growing movement of the utility industry and business towards a low carbon, cleaner economy.
Minnesota’s solar industry aims to increase its share of electricity generation from about 2% to 10% by 2030.
Over 50% of Minnesota’s electric power last year, for the first time, was produced by renewables, primarily wind and nuclear power. They do not produce carbon dioxide which pollutes the atmosphere and results in a warmer climate, amid growing evidence of the environmental and economic costs of climate change.
“Investing in this new, ultra-efficient manufacturing line will dramatically increase the delivery rate of US-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 another solar business closed. It has been a tough year amid the Trump administration’s tariffs on solar components that are largely made in Asia.
“Right now, the macroeconomic environment is good,” said Pochtaruk, whose company is raising revenue and double-digit rates and expects more than $ 100 million in revenue this year. “Imports still represent around 70% of the solar equipment supply, coming from Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. We also face competition from other American producers such as Hanwha, a large South Korean company that manufactures in Georgia. Another is Mission Solar in Texas. . “
The $ 21 million funding for the project includes $ 11.5 million from sources in Minnesota. About $ 5.5 million comes from the Xcel Energy Renewable Fund which goes to the city for infrastructure and related expenses.
Most of the rest 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 IRRRB. It took over a factory abandoned earlier by another solar manufacturer. The market has improved dramatically over the course of a decade as the industry has grown, in part thanks to federal tax breaks.
Pochtaruk’s main 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 largely the mining industry,” Pochtaruk, “We are in a growing industry. Solar has become the cheapest fuel for electricity. Nobody wants to burn coal. economically makes no sense. And it hurts humans. and the environment. “
Almost all of the panels produced by Heliene at Mountain Iron are for community-owned “solar gardens” connected to the grid and commercial solar farms of up to 40 megawatts.
Pochtaruk said cold states are ideal for solar power because “electricity is generated from light and not heat. Electricity production from solar cells decreases as the temperature rises.” .
The sun is not always shining. The rapid improvement in battery technology is a way to store and release electricity produced by solar energy. Additionally, utilities are shifting from coal to wind and solar power, balanced by natural gas power plants that can move 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 when it comes to the clean energy transition. Projects like this show Minnesota is ready to lead. “
The state has built a renewable energy and conservation industry of about 60,000 jobs, outside of ethanol, over the past 15 years.
Pochtaruk, 59, a physicist who worked in the Canadian steel industry for 20 years before becoming a solar entrepreneur, said he had lost most of his hair since launching Heliene in a volatile industry that has grown. soaring since 2019.
Heliene, which also just opened a factory in Florida, has seen its sales more than double to around $ 45 million since 2018. Pochtaruk said the company was profitable. Heliene is based in Sault Ste. Marie, on the east shore of Lake Superior.
“Heliene is one of the fastest growing solar panel producers in North America and we could not be happier that they are growing at Mountain Iron,” said State Senator David Tomassoni of Chisholm. . “The state’s investment in Heliene will create jobs … and help us deliver solar power to the rest of the state and the nation.”
Heliene’s expansion is a sound public-private investment in a cleaner growth economy.