MOUNTAIN IRON, Minn. — Less than one year into production at its Mountain Iron facility, Minnesota’s only solar panel manufacturer is looking to expand.

Ontario-based Heliene Inc. is asking for $600,000 from the Department of Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation to automate one of its manufacturing processes and hire 15 more employees.

“It will improve the pace of the line,” Heliene President Martin Pochtaruk said Friday, Sept. 6, of the automation.

Pochtaruk said automating the “most important but difficult to learn process in the facility” where a new piece comes down the line every 70 seconds, will eliminate a bottleneck in the manufacturing process.

“The moment we automate it, we can bring another crew in,” Pochtaruk said.

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Since starting production at the end of September 2018, the company has increased its staff in Mountain Iron from between 30 and 40 employees to 92 today, Pochtaruk said. Now, the IRRR loan could increase that by another 15 positions. Average wages run from about $30,000 to $75,000 annually, plus benefits.

IRRR members are expected to approve the loan, which has a 7-year term with a 3% interest rate, Monday in Eveleth. The IRRR’s Technical Advisory Committee recommended the loan’s approval at its August 29 meeting.

It wouldn’t be the first time Heliene has borrowed from the IRRR.

In January 2018, Heliene borrowed $3.5 million in government-backed loans — $1.75 million each from the IRRR and the state Department of Employment and Economic Development.

Up to $1 million of the loan would be forgiven if the company meets the terms of the agreement, like employing 70 people in Mountain Iron within four years, a figure that has already been surpassed.

That loan is currently in its initial forbearance period with the first payment due in November, according to the IRRR.

Heliene moved into the building once occupied by Silicon Energy, another solar panel manufacturer, after that company folded in 2017. Heliene produced 300,000 solar panels in 2017, but the equipment used by Silicon Energy proved outdated and in need of replacement almost immediately, the Duluth News Tribune reported in 2018.

The company has also asked DEED for a $300,000 loan to upgrade its building's ventilation system, Pochtaruk said. DEED spokesperson Shane Delaney would not confirm the loan as "nothing has been awarded at this time," he said in an email.

Pochtaruk said the plant is manufacturing 6 days per week and 24 hours a day, with employees working overtime on Saturdays. The facility aims to finish 1,100 solar panels — or solar modules — per day. When production started last year, the Mountain Iron facility could only produce less than 25% of what it can today, Pochtaruk said.

The company, which has manufacturing facilities in both the U.S. and Canada, expects to sell 650,000 solar modules this year.

Pochtaruk predicts production in Mountain Iron and companywide sales will only increase.

According to a quarterly report by the Solar Energy Industries Association, total solar capacity will “more than double over the next five years.”

“Global demand is also growing,” Pochtaruk said. “We are in a healthy market environment … it’s not dependent on one country or one region.”