ST. PAUL — An Excel Energy program that is critical to keeping the Mountain Iron solar panel plant operating has received a continuing commitment of the state Department of Commerce.

The department on Monday gave its backing to solar energy, which will ensure that Xcel Energy will continue its $5-million-a-year Solar Rewards Program through 2015, but with a reduced incentive level of $1.50 per watt.

And that in turn should help Minnesota Silicon Energy keep its doors open at its Range facility because company President Gary Shaver has said Xcel provides orders through Solar Rewards, which is only offered in the Twin Cities area.

In addition, the department will partner with Xcel for more options to develop and manage the solar incentive program into the future.

“In the nearly three years that Xcel has administered Solar Rewards, significant progress has been made in building an infrastructure to support a solar industry in Minnesota,” said Commerce Commissioner Mike Rothman.

“Jobs have been created, financial investments have been made, and a new industry is gaining traction in Minnesota’s economy. The Department of Commerce is committed to working alongside Xcel Energy to continue this momentum and to spur growth in all renewable energy sources.”

But just a few weeks ago, the commitment of the department and Xcel to Solar Rewards was not certain. And

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when Xcel proposed to discontinue the rebate program after 2013, that prompted Shaver to make this realistic assessment that, “For us, that will be damaging enough to where we consider whether or not it makes sense to manufacture in Minnesota.”

The Iron Range plant opened a little more than a year ago, with 15 employees but tough odds to beat the heavily-subsidized Chinese solar panel industry. Minnesota Silicon Energy, however, has received state and Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board millions of its own in grants and loans to build the plant and equip it. And the IRRRB is pushing programs in communities across the Range that will find a local market for the Minnesota Silicon Mountain Iron product. Also, the company is $80,000 behind in loan payments to the IRRRB, missing its first two quarterly payments. Payments to the Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority begin in 2013.

The workforce has been trimmed to 11, with three layoffs and one position eliminated through attrition.

“At this time we are holding steady. We’re really trying to avoid layoffs. I hate that, it hurts everyone and is terrible for the workers and their families,” Shaver told the Mesabi Daily News a month ago.

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