Duluth News Tribune - Solar energy finds a home on Iron Range


by John Myers, Associated Press
Thursday, January 12, 2012

Bankruptcies in solar industry haven’t hurt startups in Mountain Iron and elsewhere in Minnesota.

Excerpt: MOUNTAIN IRON — The sun continues to shine on Minnesota’s fledgling solar panel industry even as high-profile bankruptcies in the business capture headlines and as China muscles in on markets.

More than 100 contractors, renewable energy experts, civic leaders and local residents toured Silicon Energy’s new solar panel manufacturing plant here on Wednesday to see how the Iron Range’s newest industry is growing. The event was sponsored by the Northeast Region Clean Energy Resource Team, an organization that promotes renewable and sustainable energy.

The Silicon Energy plant here started production in earnest in November and now employs 15 people assembling solar panels designed for homeowners, the military, small businesses and schools.

Silicon Energy started in 2007 with a home office and production plant outside Seattle and chose the Iron Range for their first expansion. So far they have weathered a slow economy and intense competition from inexpensive Chinese solar panels by promoting quality over cost.

While the race to produce the cheapest solar panels helped bankrupt three big U.S. manufacturers last year, Minnesota’s two panel makers say they have a plan for the long haul.

“Most of the (solar panel) industry is going down the road of cheaper, cheaper, cheaper. But we’re going in another direction,” said Gary Shaver, Silicon Energy president, at Wednesday’s event. “You can call it a niche market, if quality is a niche. But we’re trying to sell quality to everyone because in the long run it makes better economic sense.”

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