Last week, Helios USA, a start-up solar panel manufacturer based in Milwaukee’s Menomonee Valley, quietly began production.
Helios’ solar panels are made with high-impact tempered glass, meaning they’re able to withstand a hailstone up to 1.5 inches in diameter. Its panels also use super mono crystal solar cells, some of the best performing solar cells on the commercial marketplace, said John Kivlin, chief operating officer of the company.
“These are in the top tier of their category,” said Brent Brucker, general manager. “These panels will be in the top three or four for power production per square foot.”
Helios’s panels will be available in two sizes to start with, a 39-inch by 66-inch panel that will generate 250 watts and a 39-inch by 80-inch panel that will produce 300 watts. Later this year, the company will be able to produce a 52-inch by 80-inch panel that will generate 400 watts.
A large portion of the company’s manufacturing space, which takes up the majority of its facility, has been left vacant for the time being. The company has built one highly automated production line. Ultimately, its facility will house three of those automated production lines.
The company currently has 12 workers in its manufacturing area. That workforce will double by the end of the first quarter, when Helios expects to add a second shift, Kivlin said.
“We have the ability to go up to four shifts,” he said. “We’ll be doing 12 hour shifts, for four days of the week.”
When Helios reaches full capacity and four shifts, its manufacturing schedule will run similar to Quad/Graphics, where workers work 12 hour days for four days, then have three days off, then work three days and have four days off.
Helios has found a receptive market for its solar panels, even before its manufacturing facility was up and running. Developers in Milwaukee and the East Coast have expressed interest in the panels, as have potential customers in Europe and Africa, Kivlin said.
“About half of the U.S.-built (panels) went overseas in 2009 and 2010,” he said.
Helios plans to seek LEED silver status for its manufacturing facility. Its office and manufacturing areas both feature a large number of windows to let in natural lighting. Many of the materials in the office area are made from recycled materials, and its lighting systems are motion activated and use sensors to dim automatically when larger amounts of natural light are available.
The manufacturing space uses high-efficiency lighting systems and Light Pipes made by Manitowoc-based Orion Energy Corp. Orion’s Light Pipes pair industrial skylights with magnification. They gather and amplify natural light to reduce electricity usage.
“Inside our manufacturing area, we’ll have variable frequency drive compressors for our air needs,” Brucker said. The variable frequency drives will reduce electricity usage by the compressors by only producing air when it’s needed.
Helios’ facility occupies about 38,000 square feet of the 140,000-square-foot building that it is located in. In addition to its inside space, the company has an option to lease the entire roof of the building, which it plans to fill with solar panels.
“Our option is to lease (the whole roof) in 10,000 square foot increments,” Kivlin said. “We’ve put in the power feed and sized it so that we can grow our manufacturing lines from one to three, which we’ll be able to back-feed with power from our roof.”
The company hopes to eventually operate as a carbon-neutral manufacturer, said chief executive officer Steve Ostrenga.
While the infrastructure and plans are in place for the solar panels, the company needs to generate sales before it begins the first installation at its facility. Kivlin said Helios hopes to do the first install this summer.
The company is now creating relationships with trade schools including Milwaukee Area Technical College, Waukesha County Technical College and others, which will soon launch solar panel installation and repair training programs.
“There’s the potential to use these installs as an end-of-class project,” Kivlin said. “They (the schools) are training people how to install the products. They can come here, see how they’re made (and install them.)”