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Manufacturing in Milwaukee: An Interview with the CEO of Helios Solar Works

February 8, 2013 - 12:02pm

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Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.
Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.
Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.
Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.
Inside the Helios Solar Works manufacturing facility. | Photo courtesy of Helios Solar Works.

How can we make it easier for more Americans to go solar? Lessons can be learned from the City of Milwaukee and its efforts to create a thriving, local solar market. Follow our weeklong series to hear from Milwaukee-based installers, residents and city leaders on what it’s like to be a part of this solar community.

Steve Ostrenga is the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Helios Solar Works -- Milwaukee’s first solar module manufacturing facility. In this Q&A, Steve shares details on the company’s focus and mission, and what it’s like to be a part of Milwaukee’s growing solar community. 

Describe your career background and your role as CEO of Helios Solar Works.

I have been in the industry since 2007. I founded Helios in 2009. We constructed the company around a couple of basic tenets: solar electricity is essential for both our country's energy security and environment, and good manufacturing jobs are key to a healthy American economy. To support these ideas we see it as our job to make the best solar module (panel) in the world. 

What do you enjoy most about your work at Helios?

This industry is dynamic -- not for the weak of heart. On the flip side, we are creating jobs in Milwaukee and making a product that is changing the world and that is very rewarding.

Why did you decide to locate the Helios solar manufacturing facility in Milwaukee?

Most of the management has strong roots in the area. The area also has a strong manufacturing heritage and, consequentially, has great access to people “who know how to build stuff.” And both the City of Milwaukee and the State of Wisconsin were extremely helpful in getting this plant up and running in Wisconsin.

How many local jobs have been created since opening Helios?

Right now we employ about 36 people full-time, a handful of others part-time and we have brought our supplier base closer and closer to Wisconsin so we are creating lots of support jobs for our partners.

Describe the type of solar modules manufactured at the Helios facility.

Helios has one of the widest arrays of solar module products in the world. We make everything from the largest and most powerful module in the country, down to what is probably the easiest solar system from an installation standpoint. Our modules have been installed in large utility-scale arrays, residential homes, municipal and commercial buildings, military bases, art installations, rural health clinics and even golf carts that run on our equipment.  

How does Helios contribute to Milwaukee’s solar supply chain?  

We build one of the components -- the module -- that makes up a solar electric system. That component is more and more coming from overseas. Having a local supplier of the module and access to the factory help give a sense of reality to solar as a viable option. People are starting to see it and when they see it they can start to believe it.

We strive to source our supply chain as local as possible. Our glass, ribbon, frames, paint and corrugated boards are all sourced locally. We also have an excellent partner in The Milwaukee Center for Independence where adults with special needs fabricate components for our products.

Describe your partnership with Milwaukee Shines (The City of Milwaukee’s Solar Program)?

We have worked very closely with both Milwaukee Shines to help with what we believe is a great mission: bringing solar power to area residents and helping to do our part to grow U.S. manufacturing jobs and the local economy. Their programs are becoming models for other parts of the country. It is rare that a program of this nature considers the whole picture like this one does, and it benefits the entire community.

We also provide tours to thousands of people each year. School children, educators, interested citizens, political leaders and solar professionals all come here to get an understanding of how solar works, how it is made and how it can benefit them or their community.

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