We are competitors by nature in Milwaukee, whether it's rooting on our small-market Milwaukee Brewers and Green Bay Packers or whether it's protecting our standards of living in a community that's second to none.
Helios, a Milwaukee-based solar panel manufacturing company, is competitive, too, and we deliver innovative world-class products. Lately, though, the American solar industry has been undermined by Chinese trade practices that are putting U.S. manufacturing jobs at risk.
At Helios, we believe American manufacturers certainly can compete with Chinese solar manufacturers. In fact, the U.S. Department of Energy found that, once you add in the cost of shipping, Chinese solar panels are actually more expensive to produce than American ones. However, we simply cannot compete with the Chinese government and Chinese manufacturers. It's not a pretty story.
From 2008 to 2010, China's exports of solar cells and panels to the United States jumped an astonishing 350%. How did China achieve this growth? The Chinese government was unfairly subsidizing its own solar companies to the tune of $34 billion, and Chinese manufacturers were dumping their products in the U.S. market.
A U.S. Senate report released in February outlined some of the impacts:
The U.S. trade deficit in environmental goods with China reached an all-time high in 2011. The U.S. went from a trade surplus in solar products in 2010 to a $1.6 billion deficit in 2011.
U.S. imports of solar cells and modules from China went up 135% in 2011.
European Union and Japanese exporters of environmental goods are also losing market share to China in global markets.
The results? A 40% collapse in prices in the past year forced 12 American plants to close or downsize during the past 18 months.
A manufacturer of crystalline solar modules has opened a new manufacturing facility for the assembly of solar panels by plant staff and robots in Milwaukee as a result of Recovery Act funds from the Energy Department’s State Energy Program (SEP).
Helios USA, LLC is Wisconsin’s first manufacturer of high-performance solar modules for deployment in residential, commercial, industrial and utility-based solar electric systems. The company will supply solar panels to a number of customers.
With a $1.4 million loan from SEP, Helios assembles solar panels in the newly opened facility, located in what was previously an abandoned manufacturing plant in the Menomonee Valley area of Milwaukee, with the help of staff and assistance from robots when “superhuman” precision and sensitivity is needed. As of December 2011, the opening of the Helios manufacturing plant has supported 26 jobs and is projected to create a total of 50 permanent jobs in the state.
The complex process for manufacturing solar modules includes six basic workstations and utilizes the assistance of both operators and automated robots for stringing, interconnection, laminating, junction box attachment, frame press and flash test of solar cells. Two material-handling robots are used in the stringing process and an overhead-mounted robot for the ensuing steps. At the end of the entire process, a robot stacks the modules for shipment. This article in Assemblymag.com explains the solar manufacturing process in depth.
With such helpful robots assisting in the plants, it was necessary to develop names for each one. Children of Helios employees volunteered to get involved and name these robotic supporters of energy efficiency. Optimus, Buzz and Nigel work alongside Helios employees daily to facilitate a smooth, easy production process while supporting the implementation of clean energy efforts nationwide.