The operator of an Iron Range solar panel plant this week received the final piece of a $3.5 million loan package from the state, allowing it go ahead with an expansion.

The plant in Mountain Iron has teetered on the edge of extinction over the past year or so. But its new operator, Heliene Inc., plans to use state loans to help fund a complete equipment refurbishment. Employment, now minimal, is expected to rise to 50 workers by July, said Heliene's president Martin Pochtaruk.

The Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board Wednesday approved a $1.75 million loan to Heliene, which is based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario. The company earlier received a $1.75 million loan from the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Up to $1 million of those credits would be forgiven if the Mountain Iron plant has 70 employees within four years. Heliene will itself invest more than $5 million in overhauling the plant, including installing a new production line.

Heliene took over the plant last year after its previous operator, Silicon Energy, essentially folded. Silicon Energy opened in Mountain Iron in 2011, but couldn't cope with low-priced competition for solar panels.

Heliene employed fewer than 10 people over the last year, the same as Silicon Energy. But the number will increase as production ramps up after the renovations, Pochtaruk said. Heliene leases the factory building from its owner, the city of Mountain Iron.

Heliene, the only solar panel manufacturer left in Minnesota, uses foreign-made solar cells to manufacture panels. Cells produce electricity; panels are arrangements of cells.

Pochtaruk said he doesn't believe the Mountain Iron plant will be significantly affected by a 30 percent tariff on foreign-made solar panels and solar cells, which was announced Tuesday by President Donald Trump's administration.

There's an allowance in the tariff for a certain amount of foreign-made solar cells to be imported without a duty, Pochtaruk said.

Mike Hughlett • 612-673-7003