An Iron Range firm seeks special consideration for selling solar panels to state transportation projects.
A new perk for Minnesota’s small solar energy industry has been tacked onto a state transportation policy bill, thanks to industry allies in the Legislature.
The provision mandates that any solar panels installed in buildings, highways, roads and bridges by the Minnesota Department of Transportation be manufactured in Minnesota.
DFL legislators from the Iron Range are promoting the mandate, and the short list of its beneficiaries includes operators of a solar firm from the Range who have contributed thousands of dollars to political campaigns.
“They’ve got a great solar panel,” Rep. Jason Metsa, DFL-Virginia, said of Silicon Energy in Mountain Iron. Metsa said the mandate to buy from Minnesota manufacturers would bring jobs and tax revenue to the state and help the firm compete with cheaper products made elsewhere.
Others object to special treatment they say could shortchange taxpayers.
“If government is going to be investing in solar, they should be … finding what’s the best value,” said Rep. Pat Garofalo, R-Farmington, urging the state to invite competitive bidding from any manufacturer.
The transportation policy bill is advancing in the House in the final weeks of the legislative session.
Silicon Energy President Gary Shaver testified in favor of the “Made in Minnesota” mandate at a legislative hearing. In an interview, he said his firm can’t undercut prices of panels manufactured elsewhere in the United States and in China. He said Silicon Energy makes panels ideally suited for Minnesota’s climate, but fears that without a mandate the Minnesota Department of Transportation is “just going to go to the cheapest thing.”
Garofalo countered, “Sometimes the most expensive product does provide you the best value. Other times it doesn’t. So it’s silly to mandate it in state law.”
Other help for solar
The proposed mandate would build on help already given to Silicon Energy and to tenKsolar of Bloomington, the state’s other manufacturer of solar panels. Several years ago the Legislature enacted the Minnesota Bonus program, requiring utilities to subsidize solar power for homeowners and businesses that install panels made in the state.
Silicon Energy also got a $1.5 million loan at 3 percent interest from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, a state development agency funded by taxes on Range mining companies. Silicon struggled after opening its Range plant a couple of years ago and missed its first two quarterly payments on the loan. The agency has given the company more time to repay it.
The mandate in the House proposal doesn’t apply if construction projects involve federal funding with requirements that might favor a solar manufacturer from outside Minnesota.
But that exception is unlikely to have much impact.
“Solar panels likely would go on buildings,” said MnDOT spokesman Kevin Gutknecht. “All of our buildings are funded with state money. We don’t use federal money for buildings.”
The result would be two Minnesota firms competing for the solar contracts.
Silicon Energy, which also operates in Washington state, was acquired three years ago by Newport Partners in Southern California, which invests in renewable energy projects. It opened the Mountain Iron facility in 2011.