Canada's Heliene, a 12-year-old solar-equipment manufacturer, broke ground this month on a $21 million expansion of its plant in Mountain Iron, Minn., which will roughly double capacity.
When complete, employment at the plant should increase by 60 to about 150 people.
CEO and co-founder Martin Pochtaruk said last week that the plant expansion and upgrade dovetails with the acceleration of the Minnesota solar industry and the Biden administration's commitment to renewable energy and the growing movement of the utility industry and businesses toward a lower-carbon, cleaner economy.
The Minnesota solar industry aims to increase its share of electrical generation from about 2% to 10% by 2030.
More than 50% of Minnesota electrical energy last year, for the first time, was generated by renewables, primarily wind, and nuclear energy. They don't yield carbon dioxide that pollutes the atmosphere and drives a warmer climate, amid mounting evidence of environmental-and-economic costs of climate change.
"The investment in this ultra-efficient, new manufacturing line will significantly increase the rate of American-made module delivery while eliminating costly supply chain risks for customers," Pochtaruk said.
Heliene took over and expanded the Mountain Iron plant in 2018, several years after another solar firm shuttered. That was a tough year amid Trump Administration tariffs on solar components that are largely made in Asia.
"Right now, the macro environment is good," said Pochtaruk, whose firm is increasing revenue and double-digit rates and expects well over $100 million in revenue this year. "Imports still account for about 70% of solar-equipment supply, from Vietnam, Malaysia and Thailand. We also have competition from other U.S. producers such as Hanwha, a large South Korean firm that manufactures in Georgia. Another one is Mission Solar in Texas."
The $21 million in funding for the project includes $11.5 million from sources in Minnesota. About $5.5 million of that is from the Xcel Energy renewable energy fund that 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 financed its 2019 Range inauguration with about $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 vastly over a decade as the industry scaled, aided partly by federal tax breaks.
Pochtaruk's chief concern is finding enough workers for entry-level jobs that start at $15.50 per hour, plus benefits, to $35 an hour for production engineers.
"The competition for jobs is largely the mining industry," Pochtaruk, "We're in an expanding industry. Solar has become the cheapest fuel in electricity. Nobody wants to burn coal. It doesn't make sense economically. And it damages humans and the environment."
Nearly all of the arrays produced by Heliene at Mountain Iron go to electric grid-connected, community-owned "solar gardens" and commercial solar farms of up to 40 megawatts.
Pochtaruk said cold-weather states are just fine for solar because "electricity is generated from light not from heat. The power generation from solar cells decreases as temperature increases."
The sun doesn't always shine. Rapidly-improving battery technology is one way to store and release solar-generated electricity. Also, utilities are moving from coal to wind-and-solar, balanced with natural gas-fired plants that can ramp up-and-down quickly and which emit about half the greenhouse gases of coal.
"Heliene will create more Minnesota jobs while building up manufacturing supply chains in the solar industry," U.S. Sen. Tina Smith said. "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, aside from ethanol, over the last 15 years.
Pochtaruk, 59, a physicist who worked in the Canadian steel industry for 20 years before becoming a solar entrepreneur, said he's lost most of his hair since starting Heliene in a volatile industry that has soared since 2019.
Heliene, which also just opened a plant in Florida, has seen sales more than double from about $45 million since 2018. Pochtaruk said the company is profitable. Heliene is based in Sault Ste. Marie, on the eastern edge of Lake Superior.
"Heliene is one of the fastest-growing producers of solar panels in North America and we could not be happier that they are expanding in Mountain Iron," said state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm. "The state's investment in Heliene will create jobs ... and help us deliver solar energy to the rest of the state and nation."
Heliene's expansion is a good private-public investment in a cleaner-growth economy.