Mountain Iron solar company among last in Minnesota

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Mountain Iron solar company among last in Minnesota

June 13, 2017

Martin Pochtaruk is trying to succeed where few others have — making solar panels in North America and making money doing it.

U.S. and Canadian photovoltaic panel makers have dropped in recent months like flowers wilting in the sun. Mountain Iron's Silicon Energy left town at the end of April — its parent company dissolved. In the Twin Cities, tenKsolar closed in May after employing as many as 90 people in recent years. In St. Paul, Simple Ray Solar LLC closed after less than a year assembling solar panels.

Nationally, big solar panel makers like Mission Solar, SunPower, First Solar, Sungevity, Beamreach and SunEdison have closed, filed for bankruptcy or both.

Now, Pochtaruk's Ontario-based Heliene, Inc. has expanded into the old Silicon Energy facility in Mountain Iron. It's one of only two companies making photovoltaic (solar electric) panels in Minnesota and the only one building them from scratch. (The other, Minneapolis-based Itek, assembles panels here from parts manufactured in Washington.)

"We were the first (solar panel manufacturer) in Canada in 2010. Pretty soon there were 11. Now, there are only three of us left," Pochtaruk told the News Tribune. "I think we can survive in Minnesota, too."

Domestics doomed?

So why are so many domestic solar manufacturers failing? The fast answer is cheap Asian-made solar panels that have flooded the North American market. The U.S. imported nearly $8.1 billion worth of solar panels in 2016, U.S. government data shows, nearly 38 percent more than 2015.

The imports — mostly from China, Malaysia, Vietnam and Thailand — have spurred a cry for protection not unlike that of the domestic steel industry. Bankrupt Georgia-based Suniva filed a trade complaint in April seeking new import tariffs on all foreign-made solar cells. Oregon-based (but German owned) SolarWorld AG charged that the so-called dumping of cheap modules has caused it to file for insolvency.

Earlier this month the U.S. International Trade Commission agreed to investigate imports of solar panels for possible harm done to domestic manufacturers.

SOURCE:  Duluth News Tribune

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