Solar panel company hopes for bright future on the Iron Range

MOUNTAIN IRON -- It seemed like a natural progression to the city councilors: First, logging companies harvested the timber surrounding Mountain Iron, then people began mining out the iron ore that was hidden beneath the earth.

Solar panel
A crowd gathers around a sample of the see-through glass solar panels that will be manufactured at a new 25,000-square-foot manufacturing facility in the new Mountain Iron Renewable Energy Industrial Park. A groundbreaking ceremony for the new Silicon Energy MN plant was held on Tuesday. (Janna Goerdt / For the News Tribune)

MOUNTAIN IRON -- It seemed like a natural progression to the city councilors: First, logging companies harvested the timber surrounding Mountain Iron, then people began mining out the iron ore that was hidden beneath the earth.

And now, Mountain Iron is welcoming a new company that will help people harvest the sun.

Area legislators and business leaders attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new solar panel manufacturing plant in the 39-acre Mountain Iron Renewable Energy Industrial Park on Tuesday. Silicon Energy MN expects to employ 15 to 20 people and begin production early next summer, said President Gary Shaver.

The company produces large glass-on-glass solar panels designed for residential installation. Its first manufacturing plant in Washington state recently was expanded to accommodate extra demand.

A mix of business incentives, renewable energy rebate programs and a strong area labor pool drew Silicon Energy to the Iron Range, company officials said.


John Carroll, vice president of Newport Partners, which is a partial owner in the $7.1 million Mountain Iron plant, said there are parallels between the work forces around both plants.

"In Marysville (Wash.), we have a lot of technology and engineering overflow from the Boeing Aircraft plant," Carroll said. "There's a similar dynamic here."

And aside from that work force, Carroll cited another reason for locating the new 25,000 square-foot plant in Mountain Iron.

"We feel wanted here," he said.

A $1.5 million loan from Iron Range Resources and $3.6 million that was redirected from a state property tax relief fund helped lure the company to Minnesota.

Gary Cerkvenik, a consultant with the Mountain Iron Economic Development Authority, also credited state Rep. Tom Rukavina and Sen. Dave Tomassoni, among others, with shepherding through legislation that helps Minnesota residents and small businesses pay for Minnesota-made solar panels.

In addition, Excel Energy customers are eligible for rebates through the company's conservation program, said Rick Evans, director of state government affairs for Excel. The company primarily serves the Minneapolis-St. Paul area.

Silicon Energy recently displayed several of its panels at the Minnesota State Fair, and visitors were impressed with the look and results, said Rebecca Lundberg, owner of Powerfully Green, a solar energy design and installation company.


She helped design and install the exhibit, which demonstrated how the panels could be used as the roof of a pergola or carport -- potentially generating the electricity one could use to juice up an electric car.

Lundberg said the Silicon Energy panels have attracted a lot of attention for their attractive design -- the glass lets light through from both sides -- and their quality. The panels are designed to stand up to heavy snow loads and high winds, all while gathering solar energy even on cloudy days.

Despite the short winter days in Minnesota, a location like Minneapolis is actually on par with a location like Jacksonville, Fla., considering the potential for solar power. While Minneapolis has less solar power capacity than Jacksonville in the winter, according to a study by the Minnesota Department of Commerce, it has more solar power capacity in the summer, when demand for electricity is higher.

Paying out of pocket to outfit a home with the glass-on-glass solar panels probably is out of reach for many homeowners. It would cost $32,000 to $35,000 to meet the average home's energy needs, Carroll said.

At that rate, it would take more than 25 years for the investment in solar energy to pay off, officials said. But a federal tax credit of about 30 percent, combined with the Excel Energy rebate, could dramatically reduce that cost. Taking advantage of all available rebates could drop the payback timeline to just five years, Carroll said.

The lack of local electrical company rebates will be a stumbling block for northern Minnesota residents who would like to install solar panels like the ones that will be produced in Mountain Iron, Rukavina said.

"Not yet," Rukavina said when asked if he thought Iron Range residents would be buying the Silicon Energy panels, though he added that he and other legislators hope to work with area power companies to offer some sort of rebate.

Several other renewable energy projects are located not far from the Mountain Iron Renewable Energy Industrial Park, including 10 large wind turbines Minnesota Power recently erected on Taconite Ridge, overlooking Virginia and Mountain Iron. The Mountain Iron City Council also is exploring the idea of erecting wind turbines on a site near Biwabik, in the hopes that revenues from that project could be directed back to the industrial park, Councilor Tony Zupancich said.


The Mountain Iron City Council and Economic Development Authority have pursued such projects over the last four years in part to diversify their economy, Councilor Joe Prebeg said, and in part because they believe it's the right thing to do.

"There's only so much you can take [out of an area] before there's nothing left to take," Zupancich said.

Mayor Gary Skalko recalled visiting the state capitol in search of funds to develop the energy park four years ago. He and other city officials came away with $500,000 to start studying the idea, and, on Tuesday, he thanked those assembled for their help in seeing the project through.

"We hope this is the beginning," Skalko said.

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