The POWER Interview: Heliene CEO Touts Support for U.S. Solar Manufacturing

Several solar power equipment manufacturing companies are building factories in the U.S., with many of those groups saying the investments are due to passage of the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) and its incentives tied to domestic production.

One of those companies is Heliene, a Canada-based solar power equipment maker. Heliene, which also makes solar panels at a factory in Ontario, Canada, in December announced it would double the size of its U.S. manufacturing assembly line in Mountain Iron, Minnesota. The company also last year said it would open a new facility in the Minneapolis-St. Paul area, producing both solar modules and cells, thanks to incentives for renewable energy in the IRA.

Martin Pochtaruk, Heliene’s CEO, recently provided POWER with insight into the company’s operations, and his views on the prospects for growth in the solar energy sector. Pochtaruk, who founded Heliene, previously was vice president of development at Algoma Steel, another Canadian company. He also held various positions with Tenaris, another global energy equipment manufacturer, working in Argentina, Italy, the U.S. and Canada.

POWER: What can we expect in terms of growth in global solar energy by 2030?

Pochtaruk: According to a recent report from the International Energy Agency, by the end of the decade the world is set to have manufacturing capacity for more than 1,200 GW of solar panels per year. The Solar Energy Industries Association forecasts that solar will account for roughly 15% of global electricity generation in 2030. Additionally, at COP28 last year governments from more than 120 nations committed to working together to triple the global installed renewable energy generation capacity to at least 11,000 GW by 2030. Of course, it’s important to note that these forecasts are based on current market conditions and can always be subject to change and variance.

Martin Pochtaruk

Overall, the anticipated growth for solar this decade will be driven by favorable legislation, strict decarbonization goals, and strong consumer support for clean energy technologies. High demand for solar deployments to support global clean energy and net-zero goals will not slow down any time soon and the business case for solar will likely remain strong, regardless of shifts in the global political environment—we have seen that the favorable financials have been the key for the growth of renewables and, in particular, for solar power generation.

POWER: What are some of the challenges faced by U.S. and North American solar companies when it comes to promoting sustainable energy projects?

Pochtaruk: Inconsistency and uncertainty around federal renewable energy policies remain a challenge for U.S. solar companies in particular. When different branches of government and political parties are not on the same page about policies or are unwilling to remove red tape to help projects move forward, we tend to see progress stall.

Shortly after the passage of the IRA, many companies announced plans to pursue new or expanded solar manufacturing sites across the U.S., hoping to capitalize on the available tax credits and federal funding. It’s likely that some of these projects will never break ground, for various reasons. For those companies that announced plans to enter the U.S. for the first time post-IRA, questions and uncertainty about the future of the policy may have stalled their efforts or made it difficult for them to raise the necessary capital needed for their projects.

Guidance on how domestic content will be defined and incentivised is also still up in the air for many industries, including solar. This uncertainty around how to split product and project costs in a final guidance yet not issued presents a challenge for companies looking to scale up their operations. The specifics of the IRA’s 10% domestic content bonus adder have yet to be issued, while many companies may be relying on those lucrative benefits to get their projects off the ground. What’s more, there are some components of solar products, including cells and wafers, that are not yet manufactured in the U.S. at all. Until we’ve built up domestic manufacturing for these materials in addition to the modules themselves, companies will have to rely on imported components and factor the related costs and supply chain implications into their operations.

POWER: Where does the U.S. stand in terms of the competition in the global solar power market?

Pochtaruk: The U.S. remains the world’s third-largest solar market, trailing China and the European Union. Increased investments in domestic manufacturing across the entire solar supply chain will help narrow the gap but the IEA predicts China will remain ahead, deploying five times more renewable capacity than the U.S. between 2023-2028.

Looking at things more granularly, China still dominates production across many stages of the solar manufacturing process by keeping production costs low compared to the U.S. The incentives and tax credits introduced in the IRA are designed to directly address this issue and make domestic manufacturing more lucrative.

This is why clear and final definitions on incentives like the 45X advanced manufacturing investment tax credit and domestic content bonus adder are urgently needed to support companies looking to expand and onshore more aspects of the solar manufacturing process.

POWER: Tell us about Heliene’s planned second manufacturing facility in Minnesota. Was it solely developed due to support from provisions in the IRA? Do you expect to see more foreign solar power equipment manufacturers build U.S. factories?

Pochtaruk: The funds for our planned facility in the Greater Minneapolis area will come from an equity/debt raise Heliene completed last year, led by Orion Infrastructure Capital. We have also invested in upgrades to our existing site in Mountain Iron, MN. Late last year we completed a $10 million expansion of one of our manufacturing lines there and we plan to pursue similar upgrades to others in 2024. In general, we’ve seen an uptick in interest in investments in clean energy manufacturing and development since the passage of the IRA and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law.

When it comes to foreign manufacturers pursuing manufacturing capacity in the U.S., competition is a natural part of a capitalist economy so it’s no surprise that global entities are looking to earn their place in the growing U.S. solar market. The IRA continues to draw companies in but ongoing policy uncertainty could hamper these efforts. For instance, legislation introduced by Senator Marco Rubio seeks to prevent companies with ties to foreign non-friendly governments, including China, from benefiting from tax credits offered in the IRA. We can expect the issue of foreign manufacturing and imports to remain heavily politicized and the success of these efforts will be closely tied to the outcome of the 2024 presidential election.

POWER: What will drive future solar energy deployments? Will it be government moves and mandates to combat climate change, better economics for renewable energy, or something else?

Pochtaruk: All of these factors will be instrumental in shaping the solar industry in the U.S. moving forward but economics will drive growth first and foremost. The business case for solar is strong—this point was reinforced during the Trump administration, when solar adoption grew despite the introduction of policies designed to bolster the coal industry. The economics showed us that solar was the more lucrative choice in the long term. In a capitalist society, the option that offers the best possible return on investment will always win out in the end. Solar is now outcompeting fossil fuels and other sources of generation when it comes to cost, we can expect that to continue to be the prevailing factor that drives future innovation and investment in the industry.

POWER: How can companies, communities and government entities help support the continued growth of the U.S. solar job market? 

Pochtaruk: The easiest way to attract and retain top talent is to offer competitive wages and benefits. Solar companies also need to be transparent about compensation models, hours and job requirements and open to feedback from employees on their processes. Whenever possible, solar companies should prioritize growing local talent and investing in the communities where they operate. Engage with community groups and leaders to promote the benefits of solar manufacturing and jobs for the local economy and establish partnerships with local higher education institutions and technical schools to strengthen your hiring pipeline. There are also many local and federal government programs and incentives available to help companies bolster their domestic hiring and training efforts—government representatives and their teams should ensure these policies are adequately promoted among companies and community members and make themselves available to support their rollout.

Darrell Proctor is a senior associate editor for POWER (@POWERmagazine).

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