Solar panels assembled on Minnesota's Iron Range are among the most reliable made and sold in the nation, according to results of a U.S. Department of Energy report unveiled Monday.
The report from the National Renewable Energy Laboratory in Colorado says the panels manufactured by Silicon Energy in Mountain Iron are the most reliable when exposed to high humidity and temperatures as high as 185 degrees Fahrenheit and as cold as 40 below zero.
Conditions were "sped up" in the lab to simulate years of normal outdoor wear and tear. While all of the traditional solar panel modules suffered some level of failure, the Silicon Energy module "proved to be the most durable module for power performance," the lab's report noted. The results of the tests "suggest favorable consideration of this module design for the most extreme terrestrial environmental applications compared to the other designs tested."
The test included Silicon Energy's modules and those made by five of the largest selling units in the U.S. from foreign and domestic companies. The competitor's names were not revealed, said Gary Shaver, Silicon Energy president.
"The panels we make in Minnesota went up against five of the world's biggest and best, and we beat them all," Shaver said.
The report will add to what has been the company's hallmark -- durability -- with the guts of the sunlight-to-electricity system sealed between two panels of glass. The panels are virtually unbreakable (the company has run a truck over them and shot them with an M-16 rifle, and they still work), can withstand severe weather and shed snow better than competitors' units. The company claims to have the only 40-year durability rating in the business, with no exposed metal parts to rust or plastic to crack.
Their product costs more, but Shaver said the company still can be successful against much less expensive panels made in China -- but only when the buying public knows the difference.
"Just like cars are different, there's a big difference in the quality of solar panels. We just need to let people know that," he said.
Silicon Energy started in 2007 with a home office and production plant outside Seattle and chose the Iron Range for its first expansion in 2011, starting here with 15 employees. But sluggish sales have dropped the workforce to 10 in Mountain Iron, Shaver said.
Meanwhile, the company missed two quarterly $40,000 payments last year on a $1.5 million loan from the Iron Range Resources and Rehabilitation Board. That loan was restructured last year and now comes due starting in September, with company officials now saying they will be able to meet the new timeline.
The city of Mountain Iron used a second, $3.6 million loan from the IRRRB to build the 25,000-square-foot building where the panels are assembled. The city owns the building, and the company's first rent payment of $75,000 comes due in October.
Shaver is hoping 2013 can be a turnaround year thanks to the recovering economy and housing market and a smaller field of domestic competitors due to bankruptcies and plant closings.
The company expects to benefit from a recently renewed program by Xcel Energy to rebate up to 60 percent of the cost of installing new solar in the Twin Cities, by far the company's largest market.
And several bills are floating around the Minnesota Legislature this year to make the solar rebates a statewide program available to anyone who buys Minnesota-made panels. Under one proposal, a statewide program would be run by the state Department of Commerce instead of utilities, with residents who install high-performing solar systems guaranteed higher payment over several years to recover the cost of installation.
"This really needs to be available to everyone, statewide, to make it fair and to make it successful," Shaver said. "Supporting local manufacturing not only means jobs and a cleaner environment, but it's going to mean less dependence on energy sources" from outside Minnesota.
Earlier this month the group Minnesota 2020 released a report saying two changes to Minnesota laws limiting solar power production could help boost local jobs, reduce emissions and move the state toward energy independence with no cost to taxpayers. The group called on the 2013 state Legislature to get rid of the current 40-kilowatt cap placed on homes and businesses with solar electric panels tied into the electric grid. Minnesota law requires utilities to buy excess electricity from grid-tied solar systems, but only up to 40 kilowatts. If that cap was removed, homeowners and businesses could expand their solar capacity and sell their extra electricity to the utilities.
The group also called on the Legislature to remove a current law prohibiting third-party investors from building solar electric systems on homes or businesses and then selling that power to utilities.
The Mountain Iron plant is the second solar manufacturer in the state, behind TenKsolar that opened in Bloomington in August 2010.
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