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Firm seeks to build solar panel plant in Manitoba

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WINNIPEG — As Feisal Somji, the CEO of Sio Silica, mounts a charm campaign in advance of next month’s scheduled Clean Environment Commission hearings on Sio’s proposed silica extraction and processing facility east of Winnipeg, a massive new potential partner was introduced this week.

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WINNIPEG — As Feisal Somji, the CEO of Sio Silica, mounts a charm campaign in advance of next month’s scheduled Clean Environment Commission hearings on Sio’s proposed silica extraction and processing facility east of Winnipeg, a massive new potential partner was introduced this week.

The German company RCT Solutions GmbH wants to build North America’s largest solar panel manufacturing operation in Manitoba using the pure quartz silica that Sio Silica hopes to produce here.

Sio Silica — which has raised concerns of environmentalists in southeast Manitoba about its potential to harm local water supply — would require $150 million in investment and eventually employ about 100 people.

The German company RCT Solutions GmbH wants to build North America's largest solar panel manufacturing operation in Manitoba using the pure quartz silica that Sio Silica hopes to produce here. (The Associated Press)

RCT’s proposed solar panel plant — which needs the pure quartz silica produced by Sio Silica — would be a $3-billion investment eventually requiring a workforce of 8,000 people. The production would be enough to generate 10 gigawatts of power per year, or about 30 million photovoltaic panels.

The value of silica is that it gets converted to silicon with a big input of energy.

“If you have silica and you have energy you can make solar panels, batteries, semi-conductors, all of these things,” Somji said.

RTC Solutions has built the largest solar panel plant in the western world in Turkey and is in the process of building one five times larger in India.

Peter Fath, the CEO of RCT Solutions, who made their pitch along with Somji to senior cabinet ministers on Wednesday, said the Manitoba plant that has been envisioned would be five times the size of the one in Turkey.

Fath said he met Somji at the World Solar Energy conference in Milan where he heard about Sio’s planned operations in Manitoba.

“I immediately felt this was a really a good place for solar manufacturing,” Fath said. “Silicon is made from pure silica and solar industries is all about having access to pure silica, which Sio is developing in Manitoba.”

Along with abundant renewable hydroelectricity, Fath said, “All the key ingredients I need to make a successful factory is available in Manitoba.”

Demand in the solar market is exploding globally. Fath said estimates are that manufacturing capacity will have to increase 500 per cent in the next few years to meet that demand and with much of the current supply produced in China, many governments around the world are eager to create domestic production.

Fath said he has the capital available to do the project — RCT is privately held with international investors who he says “have deep pockets” — but that they do not have all the patience in the world.

“I have talked to them,” he said. “They want to invest in manufacturing facilities in North America. They are very excited. But it is all about time. This is a global competition. The Manitoba authorities can take it seriously and get excited about it, then the ball is in their hands.”

But before such manufacturing can be possible, Sio Silica needs to pass muster with the Clean Environment Commission. Three weeks of hearings are planned to be held in Steinbach and Beausejour.

“We’re are looking forward to it,” Somji said. “There are lots of questions out there and we have a lot of answers. I think it is going to be a positive experience. We hope everyone will get a proper understanding of the project and it will give us an opportunity to spend the time to let people know the work we have done and how we intend to proceed.”

Fath said a detailed master site plan has already been developed that would require a 700-acre site. No location has been identified yet and he said he hopes to get some advice and guidance from officials now that the proposition has been presented.

But he said RCT’s investors will not wait indefinitely for the green light.

“The funds are available but it is all about time,” Fath said. “If the government officials come back and say ‘Let’s see. Let’s see,’ it will not fly. I have a window of opportunity. I can’t let my investors wait.”

He said the company is concentrating on Manitoba, but if Sio Silica’s project cannot proceed then he would look for other locations, likely in the U.S.

“They have the Inflation Reduction Act. They are throwing money behind solar manufacturing,” he said. “The states are lining up asking to come saying they can make it happen. But right now, we are only concentrating on Manitoba.”

» Winnipeg Free Press

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