MOUNTAIN IRON — A proposed expansion of Heliene, Inc.'s solar panel manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron is getting some sunshine at the Minnesota Legislature.
An expansion of up to $10 million would add a new 40,000 square-foot solar panel production line and 30,000 square-feet of warehouse space, according to Martin Pochtaruk, Heliene, Inc., president.
“We are out of space,” Pochtaruk said. “We have no space in the building and no warehousing space.”
Heliene is the only solar panel manufacturer in Minnesota.
The plant's 75 employees are currently manufacturing 1,000 to 1,100 solar photovoltaic modules per day.
A second production line would manufacture an additional 2,500 modules per day and create 25 to 30 new jobs, Pochtaruk said.
Rep. Dave Lislegard, DFL-Aurora, is authoring a bill that would provide a $3.8 million grant to the Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority to help fund the expansion.
“When we talk about diversification and to create a tax base and jobs, this is exactly what we need,” Lislegard said. “This creates jobs, expands a market that is growing, and shows that the Iron Range is leading the way.”
The economic development authority owns the solar panel building and leases it to Heliene.
“In order to keep Heliene here and provide jobs in our area, it's essential,” Craig Wainio, Mountain Iron city administrator said of the funding. “In order to increase production, they're talking about moving out of state. We'd rather have it here. ”
Heliene is based in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont.
In 2018, Heliene moved into the building in Mountain Iron's Renewable Energy Park after Silicon Energy, another solar panel manufacturer, left in 2017.
However, the building was originally constructed to house a solar panel manufacturing line much smaller than Heliene's existing production line, Pochtaruk said.
“We had almost no space to do anything and no warehousing space,” Pochtaruk said. “To be able to fit in the line we are running we had to use all the available space except for a lunch room and bathrooms.”
Due to the lack of space, the company has been leasing a building in Minneapolis to hold raw materials and finished products.
To create additional storage space in Mountain Iron, it's erected two industrial tents outside the main facility.
But tents aren't a long-term answer to Heliene's growing production and raw materials needs.
“We are able to store one days worth of finished product and two to five days of materials and the rest is in Minneapolis, which is very inefficient because we have to truck it back and forth,” Pochtaruk said.”
A bill in support of the state grant was also introduced during last year's legislative session. But it failed to advance as the session went on hiatus in the midst of COVID-19.
Under Lislegard's bill, HF 1154, the grant would come from the state's renewable development account.
The account is funded by Xcel Energy. Xcel Energy pays $500,000 each year into the account for each dry flask of spent fuel from its Prairie Island nuclear plant. It also pays $350,000 per year for each dry flask from its Monticello nuclear power plant.
Other funding sources are also being eyed.
The Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation in the past has provided loan assistance to help Heliene buy equipment for the plant. The Eveleth-based economic development agency would consider financial assistance for the expansion, Mark Phillips, Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation commissioner said.
The Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development is another potential funding source.
“I'm optimistic,” Lislegard said. “The timing is right. The narrative in politics is renewable energy and if you're going to have renewable energy I'm going to push for it to be made right and be made in Minnesota.”
In addition to state financial assistance, Heliene will invest its own capital into the expansion, Pochtaruk said.
If funding is secured, construction would start immediately and take five to six months.
All the solar panels manufactured in Mountain Iron are sold within the United States, Pochtaruk said.
Heliene is currently producing solar panels 24 hours a day in Mountain Iron.
Demand is expected to increase.
“The new federal administration is very keen on the energy transformation to continue the de-carbonization,” Pochtaruk said. “There's a big push. We continue to see it being very strong.”