When looking deeper into Heliene, an innovative, North American solar panel manufacturer, two key elements stand out: a sense of excitement, and a sense of community.
The excitement is generated by the company’s constant drive for innovation, evidenced by its commitment to ongoing research and development and its dynamic and engaging presence that captures the imagination. The sense of community is apparent when digging a little deeper: it is present in the company’s approach to building a better world – Tikkun Olam; its mission to usher in a more sustainable energy model; its approach to team-building, both with customers and employees; and its collaborations and contributions to “Solar-Commons” initiatives where the benefits of the sun’s energy build into socio-economic development initiatives.
Since 2010, Heliene has served the renewable energy sector by manufacturing solar panels and a series of different innovative applications of photovoltaic technologies to generate solar power. That is the ‘what’ of the company’s business model; the ‘why’ has its roots in the company’s belief that a fundamental shift is needed in the way the world views – and uses – energy. Here, the team at Heliene takes a bold, unequivocal stance: “The World’s historical energy model is unsustainable.” And they intend to do something about it.
That ‘something’ is bringing robust solar energy to diverse customers across North America. The time for change is now, and Heliene intends to humbly lead the charge. While photovoltaic panels have been in use since the 1990s, shrewd companies know that the technology can always be improved upon. Innovation is at the heart of what Heliene does and as such, the company is committed to continuous improvement, investing five to eight percent of its annual revenue into applied research and development initiatives. “Such research,” says the company, “is primarily focused in the areas of product efficiency, cost optimization, alternative applications and connectivity to the smarter grid of tomorrow.”
Supported by post-secondary institutions such as the University of British Columbia, the University of Toronto, Niagara College, and the University of Waterloo, Heliene’s research in these areas has led it to further embrace innovation. Heliene is also a member of an organization known as Next Generation Manufacturing Canada (NGen), which matches Canadian manufacturing companies with advanced manufacturing technologies, ensuring manufacturing excellence, cost savings, and consistent quality across all its products.
A point of difference
Coupled with its innovative use of leading-edge technology is Heliene’s ability to adapt and evolve in a rapidly-changing industry. Many of the firm’s competitors in North America went out of business between 2012 and 2020; however, this small-to-medium-sized company based in Northern Ontario and Northern Minnesota has only met with further success.
Part of the reason is that, “We’ve been able to adapt by being nimble, by offering a high-efficiency product, and by actually working with our clients’ construction teams to deliver a product just-in-time to a project site, by being one more reliable link into their supply chain,” explained Heliene’s CEO and Founder, Martin Pochtaruk.
It is this unique approach to delivering product to the customer that has enabled Heliene to thrive. Larger producers manufacture huge product volumes and ship them to ports throughout the region, where their clients are then responsible for organizing the logistics of getting those modules to their sites. Heliene’s products are instead made to order; once built, an in-house logistics team works with the customer to get the product directly from the manufacturing facility to the project site precisely when the installation team is ready for it.
“What we do is we participate in the planning process [with] our client, and we deliver just-in-time,” said Pochtaruk. “This integration is a competitive advantage. The product we make might not be different, but the way we bring it to the client is.” Of course, being based in North America affords the company the logistical advantage needed to achieve just-in-time delivery, and brings quality manufacturing jobs back to North American shores.
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When the company was founded in 2010, it primarily shipped products from its factory in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario to European nations, due to lagging demand for solar panels in North America at that time. By 2015, however, sales in the U.S. had started to pick up, and the company has since been growing significantly year over year. The market has even continued to grow through 2020 despite the challenges imposed by the COVID-19 pandemic. To supply its American customers more effectively, Heliene opened a state-of-the-art production facility in Minnesota.
“We took over an existing facility in the U.S. in 2017, and we made an investment in 2018 to renew the manufacturing line so that by the end of that year we had what was, at that point, the newest manufacturing facility of solar PV modules in the U.S.,” said Pochtaruk. Manufacturing and production take place in both facilities, while roles such as administration and finance, quality assurance, product design, engineering, and research and development are fulfilled at the Canadian location.
Today, Heliene has sixty-five employees north of the border in Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario, and nearly one hundred in the United States. These employees are welcomed into a progressive, dynamic workplace community, one that embraces ingenuity as well as individuality. Team members are even encouraged to bring their dogs to work, with Pochtaruk’s own Sebastian (or Sebie for short) proudly serving as Chief Canine Officer.
As one of the biggest challenges for manufacturers across all sectors is employee recruitment and retention, a supportive workplace culture such as Heliene’s represents a clear advantage. Manufacturing companies are competing with each other for skilled people, and Heliene offers a positive environment in a growing, high-tech sector that’s ripe with opportunity.
That opportunity extends beyond what many of us think of when we imagine large-scale solar panel installations. Heliene is continuously exploring new areas where its expertise can have an impact, and one of those has been making solar PV modules being launched into space to power a low altitude satellite program for a well-known American company in the space industry; another one is the greenhouse industry. Conventional agricultural production often sees food grown in Point A only to be shipped to a far-distant Point B, putting a lot of “food miles” on it and contributing significantly to greenhouse gas emissions. By utilizing greenhouses to their full potential, food production can be increasingly localized, resulting in fresher food that reaches consumers faster and has a far smaller environmental footprint. To effect change in this arena, Heliene, in partnership with a research team from the University of Waterloo, has been developing a specialized solar module, called PoweRed, designed to improve growing conditions for plants, generating power without affecting its growth.
A pilot greenhouse utilizing this technology was launched in the Niagara region with capital funding from the Ontario Agricultural Adaptation Council. As Pochtaruk explained, “We are collaborating to reduce the carbon footprint of the food industry and create a new stream of business for the company at the same time.”
Another area of expansion for the company is in electric vehicle charging, a field that is about to start and will only continue to grow. “We’re working on pilot projects to better understand how much solar can contribute to charging vehicles,” shared Pochtaruk. Looking (much) further afield, as mentioned, the company’s panels can even be found in orbit, with solar modules manufactured in Sault Ste. Marie already in space.
Ahead of the curve
There is no doubt that the age of fossil fuels is behind us. Power generation will continue to move from non-renewable resources to renewables such as solar, with companies like Heliene leading the way. With the growing rate of solar power generation in North America, by 2030, a large portion of the power generation fleet will be solar, Pochtaruk explained. In addition, the International Energy Agency expects that by 2050, thirty-five to forty percent of global power generation will be solar.
“The move to invest in renewable power generation – particularly in solar – is a sound economic decision,” emphasized Pochtaruk. And with solar technology becoming more and more economically viable irrespective of subsidy schemes, the market will only continue to grow.
Heliene will grow right along with it, continuing to expand by diversifying into new markets where solar power can be incorporated, and bringing excitement, innovation and a sense of community and social responsibility to this emergent industry.