Nation's second-largest solar plant under construction in Mountain Iron

Sen. David Tomassoni (at right in sunglasses) and Heliene, Inc. President Martin Pochtaruk (far right), stand with Heliene employees naming Heliene's Mountain Iron, Minn. solar module manufacturing facility in honor of Tomassoni.

$21 million Heliene expansion adds a second manufacturing line, new jobs and warehousing

As the City of Mountain Iron opened its Renewable Energy Park in 2007, economic development officials hoped it would lead to something big.

It's now about as big as it gets.

Construction is underway on a $21 million expansion of Heliene, Inc.'s solar photovoltaic module manufacturing plant within the park.

The expansion makes the solar facility the second largest solar module producer in the nation, based on capacity. 

“This is kind of what we foresaw up there,” Craig Wainio, Mountain Iron city administrator said. “We knew the green energy thing was coming and we tried to get far ahead of it.”

Heliene is expanding its existing 25,000 square-foot manufacturing facility at the park to 95,000 square-feet.

The expansion adds an advanced automation solar panel production line to the single-line plant and creates new 60 jobs.

With the expansion, the facility will be capable of producing 900 megawatts of solar power annually. It also increases the company's warehouse space.

The expansion is expected to be operational in June 2022.

“You are creating a tremendous legacy on the Iron Range,” Martin Pochtaruk, Heliene president said at a groundbreaking ceremony. “Our product made here in Mountain Iron Minnesota is the simplest renewable energy engine to spark electrification.”

Max Gray Construction of Hibbing and Duluth is the general contractor on the expansion. Max Gray won construction with a low bid of $9,390,000, Wainio said. 

In addition to the building cost, about $9.5 million will be invested in equipment, Pochtaruk said. Another $10 million or more in working capital will fund operation of the facility, he said.

The plant will be named the David J. Tomassoni Solar Manufacturing Facility in honor of state Sen. David Tomassoni of Chisholm.

Tomassoni was key in helping obtaining state funding for the project.

Heliene, which will manufacture a solar panel every 24 seconds in the expanded facility, is known for providing job opportunities to “second chance,” people, Tomassoni said.

“This is not only an opportunity for manufacturing contributing to the new age economy, potentially even making PolyMet and Twin Metals even more important, but this also provides jobs for people who need jobs and provides jobs for people who need to get back into the economy and working for their families,” Tomassoni said. “This is really a big deal.” 

The Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority will own the expansion and lease it to Heliene. The authority also owns and leases the existing building to Heliene.

The Minnesota Department of Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development each provided a $2.75 million loan to the economic development authority. St. Louis County provided a $1 million grant.

A $5.5 million Minnesota Renewable Development Account grant to the economic development authority, pushed the project across the finish line.

Along with U.S. Steel's nearby Minntac Mine, two of the nation's biggest producers in their respective segments, will be located near each other.

Minntac is North America's largest taconite plant.

Fittingly, the solar plant is located atop an old iron ore dump. 

“The Iron Range has a history of doing manufacturing and industrial processing that has really changed the world,” Mark Phillips, Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation commissioner said. “And now we have an opportunity to do that again with Heliene. Right in the shadows of Minntac we're doing manufacturing on the Iron Range. That's one of the greatest things we can possibly do.”

The Mountain Iron Renewable Energy Park is a 40-acre site just north of Highway 169.

Heliene in 2017 moved into its existing building in the park after Silicon Energy, a former solar panel producer at the site, folded operations.

About 25 acres remain in the park, Wainio said.

Rep. Dave Lislegard of Aurora spearheaded efforts in the Minnesota House of Representatives to utilize Renewable Energy Account funds for the expansion.

Xcel Energy pays $500,000 into the account annually for each dry cask of spent nuclear fuel stored at its Prairie Island nuclear power plant and $350,000 for each dry cask stored at its Monticello nuclear power plant.

The fund supports development of renewable energy projects in Minnesota. 

“I'm truly happy this is happening as the energy sector transitions across the country,” Lislegard said. “We here in Minnesota can lead the way. This will be the second largest solar plant in the country right here in Mountain Iron. You look at this being the second largest solar project, we can lead the way.”

Solar had a record-setting first quarter of 2021.

Solar accounted for 58 percent of all new electric capacity additions in the quarter, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association (SEIA).

Nationwide, the solar market surpassed 100 gigawatts of installed electric generating capacity, doubling the size of the industry over the last 3.5 years, according to SEIA. 

Rep. Rob Ecklund of International Falls, a member of the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board, said he read that a majority of U.S. households will be on solar power by 2035. 

“This is a tremendous partnership,” Ecklund said. “Without the city, without the county, without the legislature this wouldn't happen. What better place to have these panels manufactured than right here in northeastern Minnesota.”

St. Louis County is exploring building one of the state's largest solar arrays, St. Louis County Commissioner Keith Nelson said.

Modules produced in Mountain Iron could be used in the array, he said. 

“Minnesota's mineral range, because we're no longer Minnesota's Iron Range, is a very special part of the state of Minnesota,” Nelson said. “But to add something that truly is going to be impactful for the future not only to Minnesota's mineral range, but to the state of Minnesota and the world - to add this - to add solar panel manufacturing here on the Iron Range, let's be the number one manufacturer in the world.”

St. Louis County Board Chair Mike Jugovich said the project is an example of local, county, and state units of government working together with companies to create jobs and new tax base.

“We are doing things no one thought we would ever do,” Jugovich said. “We are doing it well and we are doing it better than anybody. We are doing great things with all of our partnerships.”

Rep. Jamie Long, chair of the House Climate & energy Finance and Policy committee, said one third of the Heliene Mountain Iron solar panels will remain in Minnesota.

Some will be used in solar garden projects within his district in Minneapolis, he said. 

“To see it expanding and growing to become the second largest manufacturer in the United States is just thrilling,” Long said. “This is a huge project and it's not just a project for the Range. This is a project for the entire state and this is something that the entire state can be proud of. We have a national leader in solar manufacturing right here in Minnesota. This is something that's really a statewide asset as well as a national asset.”

Pochtaruk said the Biden administration is calling for a three to four times acceleration in solar energy production.

The Mountain Iron plant will help meet the nation's accelerating solar demand and clean energy goals, Pochtaruk said.

Heliene also operates a solar panel manufacturing plant in Sault Ste. Marie and is opening a third plant in Riviera Beach, Fla.

The City of Mountain Iron renamed the road leading to the plant in honor of Tomassoni.

“It's a small sign,” Tomassoni joked.