Heliene retools its Minnesota module factory

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Despite the recent fall in module prices caused by Chinese policy changes, the United States still appears to be attractive as a location to make PV modules. As the latest, Canadian PV maker Heliene has announced that it is refitting its factory in Mountain Iron, Minnesota with new tools to produce higher-efficiency products at greater speed.

Heliene estimates that the factory will have the capacity to manufacture 130 MW of modules when complete, and will focus on 72-cell, mono-PERC designs. The company expects the first products to begin rolling off the lines in the second half of August, and to be fully ramped a month or so later. This will involve the hiring of 130 workers, 25-30 of which have already been retained.

“What is left to be hired are the hourly workers,” Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk told pv magazine.

MnSEIA has applauded the move as a positive trend, particularly as it has lost all of the other module makers in the state. “The company is well-poised to deliver numerous benefits to the state’s solar industry, including its addition of over 130 new jobs in the Iron Range, providing Minnesota manufactured solar products to our nation-leading Community Solar developers and others,” declared MnSEIA Communications Director and General Counsel Liz Lucente.

Heliene took over the factory in 2017 from Silicon Energy, and operated it with the existing equipment for a year. However, Pochtaruk notes that the older equipment was not able to work with the newer 4- and 5-busbar cells, and as such was holding back the efficiency of products the company could produce.

The total investment in getting the factory up and running again is expected to be over $18 million, between working capital and capital expenditure. This includes a $3.5 million loan from the state of Minnesota.

The makeup of the loan is split between the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board (IRRRB) and the Department of Employment and Economic Development, who are both contributing $1.75 million. The loan has been approved by IRRRB, but has not yet closed.

The loan also outlines that any employee of Heline who works a minimum of 2,080 hours annually is guaranteed a $15 hourly wage, with fully subsidized health and dental insurance, as well as a retirement plan.

 

With inmates, 455 MW

In addition to the Minnesota retooling, Heliene is in negotiations with the U.S. Department of Justice to re-open a former Suniva module factory at a federal prison in Sheridan, Oregon. The factory will produce similar modules to its Minnesota factory, and has a 75 MW annual capacity.

Pochtaruk says that he expects to begin manufacturing in October or November, but whether or not the facility is retooled will depend on DOJ, which owns the facility.

With these two factories and a third that is already running in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, Heliene expects to have a production capacity of over 450 MW in 2019. These are all module factories, and Pochtaruk says that it does not make sense to manufacture cells with the 2.5 GW exemption in the Section 201 tariffs.

When questioned by pv magazine, Pochtaruk said that the global fall in module prices has not dissuaded his company, noting that there is plenty of demand in the United States. “It is still a very large market, so it is underserved from a supply point of view,” notes Pochtaruk. He also observes that the Chinese wafer and cell suppliers have already adapted to the fall in prices, and estimates that several gigawatts of wafer capacity has shut down.

Pochtaruk also remarked that locating factories in low-cost areas far from major urban centers assists with the economics of U.S. and Canadian manufacturing. “You need to look at what the parameters are that you can control,” states Pochtaruk. “We are not in Manhattan, we are not in San Francisco. Whether it is owning a building, renting a facility or employing people, the costs are lower. That is what makes manufacturing in North America possible.”