Canadian company gives solar second chance on Range

This solar panel manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron now belongs to Heliene, Inc., where they plan to hire 130 workers in the next two months. (PHOTO: Heliene)

Next month, a Canadian company will reopen a solar panel manufacturing plant in Mountain Iron, hoping to shake off the bad juju of a previously failed project.

Heliene opens in August with plans of hiring 130 people by September. They’ll produce commercial-scale solar panels for sale in the North American marketplace. They enjoy the aid of a $3.5 million state loan package, but represent something different than the previous occupant, Silicon Energy: Heliene is an established company.

Frank Jossi of Energy News Network reported on the project this week. This move is part of an American expansion by Heliene. They will open another plant in Oregon later this year.

I see quite a few takeaways from this story.

A loan that brings in 130 workers is a pretty good deal, as Iron Range economic development goes. But you also have to factor in the sunk cost of the much less successful Silicon Energy deal.

Silicon badly predicted the market for their expensive product and basically walked away two years ago. This, despite enormous legislative aid. They received loans, grants, the construction of their city-owned building, and even tax credits for Minnesota-made solar panels. That project represented more of the insider dealing that scorches through our one-time mining money like tinder.

The Iron Range is lucky that something else came through. But Heliene will need to operate for a long time to make the whole thing worth it.

This case is also an interesting study of tariffs. As Jossi points out in his story, the Trump Administration’s tariffs on Chinese solar panels has dual effects on this project. American made solar panels aren’t subject to tariffs, which is good, but a lot of their raw materials are subject to Trump’s tariffs. In fact, it’s a net loser for them.

The end result is higher prices for solar panels, a cost that is passed on to American consumers.

Another lesson here is Heliene’s business model. They seek to sell lots of solar panels to large customers, mostly commercial and municipal solar projects. Until recently, the spike in solar adoption was in residential rooftop panels. Affordable Chinese panels made that possible, but with tariffs North American companies now move in a direction, along with consumers.

Finally we have a reminder that Canada is not our enemy. It’s stupid I have to type that, but I do. America’s economy — particularly Minnesota’s — is closely tied to the Canadian economy, to the mutual benefit of both sides. Yes, there are disagreements about how to handle timber due to systemic differences. But aside from that, a trade war with Canada only serves to hurt Minnesota in the long run.

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