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Bad news, good news for Iron Range solar panel plant

Silicon Energy has closed and abandoned its plant in Mountain Iron. The good news is that an Ontario company has swept in and is making solar panels in the same building. 2012 News Tribune file photo.

The bad news is that another effort to diversify the Iron Range economy has stumbled, with a Mountain Iron solar panel manufacturer closing shop and leaving town as some of its products have been labeled a safety threat because they might catch fire.

The good news is that a new company has moved into the same Mountain Iron building and is making new solar panels while employing more people.

Ontario-based Heliene Inc. is employing about eight people in Mountain Iron in an expansion of its Sault Ste. Marie solar panel operations.

"They're doing three times the production that Silicon Energy ever did," said Gary Cerkvenik, an Iron Range economic development liaison who worked with Silicon Energy and now works with Heliene Inc.

Silicon Energy, which had been based in Marysville, Wash., filed for dissolution in its home state one year ago. The Mountain Iron assembly plant — which opened in 2011 but which never grew to expected levels — continued to operate through April 30 but then closed its doors, putting four employees out of work.

Silicon Energy officials said they closed because of competition from cheaply made Chinese solar panels that flooded the U.S. market. The company did not declare bankruptcy and instead sold equipment in the Mountain Iron plant to the city for $1 as a goodwill gesture.

The city already owns the building, which it built with a $3.6 million loan from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. The ready-made building and equipment left by Silicon Energy made for a quick startup for Heliene Inc., Cerkvenik said.

The failure of Silicon was not a major loss for the IRRRB, at least not yet. Silicon had already paid in full a $2 million IRRRB grant as of October 2016. Its former owner also apparently is making payments on a $1.5 million equipment loan out of his own pocket even after the company closed. IRRRB officials Tuesday were unable to provide the News Tribune with an updated accounting of Silicon Energy's incentives from the agency.

Heliene and a Minnesota business partner, SimpleRay LLC, have been producing solar panels at a St. Paul facility since 2015. Martin Pochtaruk, Heliene's president, did not immediately return a reporter's calls to get more information on the Mountain Iron operations.

Meanwhile, Silicon Energy has left behind some upset customers after reports that some of its panels have delaminated, spurring a fire risk.

Intertek, an independent testing lab, issued an alert on May 16 that some Silicon Energy panels labeled as tested by Intertek should be removed from service after "reports of edge delamination resulting in possible module overheating and failure."

"Modules which bear an ETL certification mark with a date of manufacture between 2011 and 2013 may not be in compliance with their listing requirements and should be removed from service if any signs of delamination are present," the Intertek alert states. "Modules which bear an ETL certification mark with a date of manufacture before 2011 or after 2013 bear counterfeit ETL Certification Marks and are not known if they are in compliance with any standard. Such modules should be immediately removed from service.''

Dana Brandt, owner of Bellingham, Wash.-based contractor Ecotech Solar, told the Northwest News Network website that the Silicon Energy problem was unusual in the industry.

"Their design and materials were quite different from a standard solar panel. They were trying something new in hopes of creating a better, tougher, easier-to-install product," Brandt told Northwest News Network last month. "The initial lab tests showed their panels to be incredibly tough. But time in the field is showing the design to be flawed."

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