Solar panel
Credit: Creative Commons

The federal government’s decision to pause tariffs on solar panels from four Asian countries amid a trade dispute investigation has not resolved uncertainty for Minnesota’s only solar manufacturer.

The Ontario-based solar module manufacturer Heliene operates a plant in the northern Minnesota city of Mountain Iron. Like almost all U.S. solar manufacturers, it relies on components imported from southeast Asia. Heliene receives solar cells from Malaysia, one of the countries under scrutiny.

A U.S. Commerce Department probe is investigating whether China is evading tariffs by rerouting its production through Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam and Cambodia. Solar installers have said the action, on top of supply chain issues, would devastate the industry. Others say the case is important for expanding U.S. solar manufacturing. American solar firms provide just 20% of domestic demand. 

Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk recently spoke with the Energy News Network about the state of the industry, looming challenges and an addition to its Minnesota plant. The following transcript was lightly edited for clarity and length.

Q: What do you think of President Biden’s decision?

A: It is too soon to say. Besides the high-level news there is no detail on how anything could be implemented and if there would be litigation on it or not, therefore keeping the risk level high.

Q: How could the Commerce Department probe impact you?

A: The solar cells we bring to the U.S. for the production of solar modules come from Malaysia and we will not (import them) right now. If you bring in cells then you might be liable to pay import duties if after the investigation there’s a decision to impose an import duty on Malaysia parts.

Q: Why not just switch suppliers?

A: To qualify a product from another country takes six to nine months and hundreds of thousands of dollars to test and certify. Solar panels are electric products — you can’t just slap anything in it and ship it.

Q: What do you think of the charges leveled by Auxin Solar (the company whose complaint initiated the Commerce Department probe)?

A: It affects everybody’s business but at the same time we also understand that we have to follow the rule of law. When somebody has allegations of a possible crime, we don’t go to the judge and say, “Well, don’t investigate.”

Q: Have supply chain issues impacted Heliene?

A: Many other things are affecting the way we work. There are delays in import loading and unloading, and congestion. Half the ports in China are not shipping because they can’t find employees. There’s a lot going on that’s not related to what’s happening in the U.S.

Q: How does your Minnesota plant work?

A: We assemble parts that come from different places in the world — it’s no different than when you make a car. It’s all assembly. We have 10 components from two or three domestic and international suppliers.

Q: Another big issue in the solar industry is the expiration of the solar tax credit in 2024 unless Congress restores it. Are you concerned?

A: We hope the Senate gets moving on that. There are several initiatives right now to bring it back in the climate package, or what used to be called the Build Back Better Act. But I’ll answer your question with a question: Why is it that the developers’ business is the only one that matters? Why is the concern only focused on their rate of return? We’ve been working with razor-thin margins for a lifetime.

Q: Do we need tax credits to keep the market growing?

A: When you’re looking at what is happening in other jurisdictions — South Africa, Europe — those are very different economies and very different power supply markets. But they, and many others, are moving forward, and they do not have tax rebates or investment tax credits. Solar markets work fine without incentives.

Q: Let’s talk about your company’s history in Minnesota, which began after the failure of panel maker Silicon Energy. Now you have big plans with a $21 million, 95,000-square-foot expansion. How is progress?

A: We’ve operated the factory in Minnesota since May 2017. Now with our new addition, we will increase our production from 150 megawatts annually to 550 MW. It will be one of the biggest solar production plants in the country.

Q: How many employees will you add and how many do you have?

A: We will hire between 60 and 65 employees, and we have more than 60 employees currently in the plant.

Q: You’re more than tripling output but just doubling employment. How does that work?

A: We use robots. The existing line has 18 employees working with robots. The new line will have just eight employees but will operate three times faster. We still need employees to move the panels and provide engineering capability to manage the software.

Q: Will the plant open on schedule?

A: We should be done nearly on schedule in early July. We will bring the equipment in the second half of July and start the line up during August.

Q: Frigid northern Minnesota seems an unusual place for a solar plant. Why here?

A: We’re from northern Ontario, so we are sort of neighbors to Minnesota. We’re both remote but for the last 120 to 130 years we have both hosted industrial development such as mining and steel making. We have labor that can work on highly advanced manufacturing.

Q: Despite challenges, is solar still in a good spot?

A: When you look at power generation in the U.S., quarter after quarter, solar is almost 50% of it, and that will only grow.

Frank is an independent journalist and consultant based in St. Paul and a longtime contributor to Midwest Energy News. His articles have appeared in more than 50 publications, including Minnesota Monthly, Wired, the Los Angeles Times, the Minneapolis Star Tribune, Minnesota Technology, Finance & Commerce and others. Frank has also been a Humphrey policy fellow at the University of Minnesota, a Fulbright journalism teacher in Pakistan and Albania, and a program director of the World Press Institute at Macalester College. Frank covers the state of Minnesota.