Solar manufacturing on the Iron Range

By Virginia Rutter on November 13, 2018
Outside of the Heliene factory, ready to take tour!

When I was up on the Iron Range earlier this month launching our Iron Range Solar Co-op, I had the great privilege of getting a tour of the new Heliene facility in Mountain Iron.

Heliene is operating out of the old Silicon Energy facility. The company recently secured a $3.5 million loan from the Iron Range Resources & Rehabilitation Board and Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development to expand the plant for full solar panel manufacturing. The Mountain Iron Plant Manager, Joanne Bath, has had a busy few months getting things up to speed, but she graciously gave me some of her time for a tour.

The facility is currently manufacturing solar panels 24 hours a day, five days a week. They will expand to 24 / 7 over the next few months. At full capacity, the facility will produce 1,000 solar panels every day! This expansion has added 130 jobs to the community.

I really enjoyed watching solar panels get built. The facility is high tech, with a series of robots that work in tandem with employees to create the solar panels. The process starts with robots assembling the solar cells, connecting them into strips, and then laying the strips together to form the module. The module is then laminated for stability and durability. Then employees solder the connections, assemble the frame, and test the final panel for its electricity production capacity. Heliene employees provide quality control throughout the manufacturing process, ensuring that each panel is built to spec and will meet its production standards.

The Mountain Iron plant produces both 60-cell and 72-cell panels. Most of these go to commercial / industrial installations, but they are available for residential installations as well.