A solar panel manufacturer in Mountain Iron will soon add 15 employees to its current workforce of 91 with the help of an Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board $600,000 loan.
The IRRRB approved the loan request of Heliene USA Inc. on Monday at the agency’s headquarters in Eveleth.
Canadian-based Heliene officials say the loan is needed to purchase additional production equipment to meet a growing demand the solar market experienced during the decade, which is forecast to continue at a significant rate.
The new equipment will break through a bottleneck in the company’s production, officials say. The loan is secured with the equipment to be purchased.
Growth in the U.S. solar marketplace has increased from 1,500 megawatts in 2010 to 13,000 megawatts this year, but domestic production is currently only at 2,000 megawatts, according to company officials.
Heliene CEO Martin Pochtaruk told board members that the company is financially healthy and has an $11 million working line of credit in place. But he also said that 2018 was the first year that Heliene has lost money, citing global trade uncertainties.
The Iron Range’s initial foray into the solar panel business was a failure. Silicon Energy, which began operations on the Range in 2011, closed its Mountain Iron plant’s doors in June 2017. It was an outcome that seemed almost inevitable from the start.
Employment numbers never met expectations as the business would stop, start up, then stop again. Meanwhile, the plant’s parking lot was most often near-empty. It was a troubling pattern for the company, which also had product flaws adding to its financial woes.
Silicon officials said forces out of their control were mostly responsible for the shutdown. Silicon couldn’t compete with cheaply-made Chinese solar panels that flooded the market, they said.
Silicon received an IRRRB $1.5 million equipment loan that is still outstanding, with a repayment deal worked out between the agency and Silicon’s former owner. That agreement calls for the former owner to make payments of $100,000 a year until $1.1 million owed is paid off, said Matt Sjoberg, IRRRB’s executive director of development, on Monday. The interest is forgiven as part of the deal.
Heliene operates in a Renewable Energy Park facility in Mountain Iron, which is owned by the Mountain Iron Economic Development Agency. When Silicon shut down, the company sold the building to Mountain Iron for $1. It was built with a $3.6 million IRRRB loan and it had previously been leased to the now defunct Silicon Energy.
The IRRRB and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development have partnered with Heliene USA by providing a $3.5 million equipment loan. That loan is currently in a forbearance period with the first payment due in November.
The IRRRB on Monday provided financial help for a youth mental health issue on the Iron Range.
The board approved a $1 million loan for a new 32-bed treatment center in Grand Rapids to be operated by North Homes Children and Family Services.
The $6.5 million psychiatric treatment facility will serve children ages 11-18, with education to be provided by the Grand Rapids School District.
North Homes was recently given state approval for 52 children’s psychiatric beds. Twenty of the beds will be located at the Community Mental Health Center, with the other 32 going into the new facility.
Services for the children will be 24/7 nursing support along with traditional intensive mental health therapy in a residential setting.
In addition, the board also approved a $17,000 demolition grant and a $268,000 infrastructure grant for North Homes.
The loan will help create 65-80 new jobs with wages ranging from $31,000 to $75,000 per year.
The board OK’d a $760,000, 20-year loan to a Hibbing company that will create 10 to 13 new jobs with annual wages of $30,000 to $69,000. Northern Opportunities, LLC/RSF Industries Inc. plans to expand its manufacturing operations.
“The ability to pivot across industrial segments e.g. mining, manufacturing, medical components, consumer goods, forestry products, aviation and utilities was a key component in our decision to focus on the acquisition of this type of business,” said co-owner Jeff Halter.
The total project cost is $1.925 million.