Itek Energy, a solar panel maker in Bellingham, Wash., says it plans to open a manufacturing plant in south Minneapolis in early 2015.

Kelly Samson, a co-founder of the company, said in an interview Tuesday that the plant is planned in an existing building on the 2700 block of 31st Avenue S. Production is expected to begin in January or February, he said.

The announcement comes at a time of major change in the solar industry. Many states, including Minnesota, have enacted solar incentives, helping to fuel record sales as the cost of solar equipment steadily has dropped. Meanwhile, intense competition over the past five years helped sink more than 50 U.S. solar companies, according to Greentech Media, and a federal solar tax credit will drop from 30 percent of the project cost to 10 percent after 2016.

"The solar industry is a very dynamic industry," Samson said at the first Minnesota Solar Energy Industry Association conference in Bloomington. "Some of the largest solar manufacturers are going under — and others are forming behind them."

In an interview, Samson said the expansion into Minneapolis is privately financed, but he declined to disclose the amount of investment. He said the plant initially will have a small number of employees, as did the Bellingham plant. After four years, that operation employs 74 workers, he said.

The company aims to qualify for the Made in Minnesota solar incentive funded by ratepayers of Xcel Energy Inc., the state's largest power company. The program offers up to $2,500 rebates for residential systems, and more for commercial projects. Other solar incentives are available from investor-owned utilities under a 2013 state law that requires them to get 1.5 percent of their electrical power from the sun by 2020.

Itek Energy would be the third Minnesota-based solar panel manufacturer. The others are Silicon Energy, which builds panels in Mountain Iron, and TenKsolar, based in Bloomington. Silicon Energy's parent company, like Itek, is based in the state of Washington, where the two firms already compete against each other.

Samson said Itek's high-efficiency solar panels are aimed at the residential and small-business markets. Solar cells that have been laminated together in the Washington plant will be shipped to the Minneapolis plant, where frames and electronic components will be added in the final assembly and the finished panels tested, he said. Itek sells its products through local solar developers and installers, he added.

The CEOs of the other two Minnesota solar panel makers offered an upbeat outlook at the conference.

Silicon Energy CEO Gary Shaver said his company has begun producing a new, lower-cost solar panel at its Mountain Iron plant and expects a strong year in 2015. He said the Voyageur series panels are made from U.S. components, unlike other Minnesota manufacturers', which have some imported parts. Silicon Energy competes in the markets for residential and small commercial solar projects.

TenKsolar builds systems to install on a flat roof or the ground, and its business is focused on large commercial and utility projects, including one installed this year at the Maple Grove headquarters of Great River Energy, the state's second-largest power company. About 80 percent of TenKsolar's sales are outside of Minnesota, said Joel Cannon, the company's CEO.

In 2014, TenKsolar's revenue tripled to $20 million, and its Bloomington plant's capacity is sold out for the year, he added.

"Solar is the cheapest form of electricity in most of the world right now," he said. "It is not in Minnesota, but it will be very soon. The growth is not going to stop."