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Business of the Month: Sault Ste. Marie solar panel company at home on Minnesota's Iron Range

U.S. green-tech legislation spurs Heliene’s Midwest expansion but growth also in the cards for the Sault

A Sault Ste. Marie manufacturer of solar panels and cells is expanding its presence in Minnesota with a planned move into the Twin Cities.

Heliene hasn’t settled on a factory site in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, but company president Martin Pochtaruk said the expansion is fuelled by a backlog of orders in a state that embraces renewable energy and is sparked and incentivized by the passage of the U.S. Inflation Reduction Act (IRA).

“Right now we’re sold for almost two years — April 2025 — for U.S. capacity,” Pochtaruk said, in prompting the need to add more manufacturing lines.

The reported US$145-million development will create 470 jobs and kick off production in late 2024, reaching an annual capacity of one gigawatt of modules and 1.5 gigawatts of cells. It will double Heliene’s module production capacity.

The Twin Cities expansion is on top of boosting production capacity at its anchor Mountain Iron plant on Minnesota’s Iron Range.

The company’s growth is backed by New York-based Orion Infrastructure Capital, which includes replacing its entire manufacturing line in Sault Ste. Marie.

Heliene (pronounced Hell-E-on) has been operating in Minnesota for six years, a venture that started with its Mountain Iron facility on the historic Mesabi Iron Range.

In an interview, Pochtaruk mentioned their factory buildings were constructed on 100 years' worth of tailings from a nearby U.S Steel iron ore mine. The elevated area of mining waste rock, which the plant sits on, has since been replanted.

His introduction to the state came at the behest of late Senator David Tomassoni, who cold-called him one day in April of 2017 about a solar panel manufacturing company that was about to close in this mining city, dubbed the ‘Taconite Capital of the World.’

The outgoing owner was leaving the equipment behind. If Pochtaruk could keep the existing workforce intact, Heliene would be given a three-year rent-free lease with only the municipal property taxes to pay.

Pochtaruk quickly incorporated Heliene’s Minnesota business arm and started operating on May 1.

“That allowed us to get some brownie points with the state,” said Pochtaruk, a former Algoma Steel executive. “We were able to get a loan — half of it forgivable — to build the new line.”

Tomassoni, considered a political champion for the Iron Range and Heliene, was able to secure US$12 million for a plant expansion at Mountain Iron in a factory that now employs 170.

With some investments in upgrading the manufacturing line, Pochtaruk said they’re making five times more products than under the previous ownership. 

Last fall, Heliene cut the ribbon on its latest solar panel manufacturing line that boosts plant capacity from 150 megawatts to 300 megawatts.

The company previously made bold moves into Florida in 2021 where it acquired the former SolarTech Universal factory in Riviera Beach and refitted that 100-megawatt facility to make their proprietary solar panels.

Heliene has tapped into the incentives offered by the IRA, passed a year ago in Washington, which is boosting the U.S. solar industry through tax credits and manufacturing incentives.

As a U.S. manufacturer, Pochtaruk said Heliene gets, on a per-unit basis, seven cents per watt, which will amount to US$20 million for this year alone. 

“That number will be higher as we continue increasing capacity.”

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As a 10-year program, Pochtaruk said the IRA provides certainty.

“That stability is what is making the solar demand in the U.S. grow extremely fast,” he said, coupled with their ability to sell a made-in-the-USA product to commercial developers and the residential market.

In response, Canada’s Clean Technology Investment Tax Credit, outlined in the federal budget, is basically a “copycat” of the IRA, he said. But with the regulatory details unclear, “nobody knows how it’s going to be achieved.”

Pochtaruk hopes it will eventually jumpstart demand for their Sault-made modules in a “lame” Canadian market that he described as remaining substantially unchanged from a decade ago.

Conversely, Minnesota has a thriving clean and green technology sector. The state has set a target of 2040 that all of its electricity generated or procured for use in Minnesota must be from carbon-free sources.

“One of the few states with such an aggressive target, said Pochtaruk. “Everybody’s proud of it. That’s unthinkable in Ontario.”

But Heliene isn’t putting Sault Ste. Marie entirely in the shade. A plant expansion is getting underway shortly in their hometown, Pochtaruk said. 

Some 41,000 square feet of additional space will be grafted onto its west end factory off Allens Side Road where a $11-million automated line will be installed. Construction starts this fall with the slab pouring before the building goes up next spring.  

The line will replace the one initially installed in 2010 and will boost production capacity from 100 to 300 megawatts of solar power a year. Most of their production will be sold in the U.S. 

Production at the Sault plant is on hold with the current line being dismantled for the new line to be installed in April.

By then, Pochtaruk said the company will be in hiring mode, looking to triple the size of its workforce in adding 120 people to its current workforce of 65.

The manufacturing lines are highly automated. And, as with all technology today, Pochtaruk said the industry doesn’t stand still.

“The technology is changing every six months.”

The two-square-metre solar module, first produced in the Sault in late 2010, which once produced 275 watts, now generates 530 watts.

Their modern manufacturing process is entirely hands-off. Heliene has artificial intelligence visual inspection of each panel. 

“We produce a solar module in Minnesota every 24 seconds,” he said. Though Heliene employs skilled personnel in electricians and mechatronic engineers, Pochtaruk said they can train people coming in off the street, much as they did when they started up in the Sault.

“The type of training that operators receive is more and more complex, but it is not hands-on manufacturing anymore.”

When running, the Sault facility runs two 12-hour shifts daily, four crews, four days and four days off. Just about all this production heads to customers in the U.S.