SolarCity’s Buffalo Boom Brightens Local Economy

Cuomo BuffaloIf you think the idea of a new, clean-energy economy or the notion of green jobs are just rhetoric, take a trip up to Buffalo, New York. Have a look at the 1.2 million-square-foot shell of SolarCity‘s recently-completed manufacturing plant that lies nestled in a crook in the Buffalo River, just a mile or so before it empties out into Lake Erie.

The plant was topped off this week, a milestone that was marked by a visit by Gov. Andrew Cuomo. The $900 million factory is the centerpiece of the governor’s upstate economic development plan, that he calls the Buffalo Billion. Other developments in the area include an IBM software research facility and biotech offices for Albany Molecular Research.

The new SolarCity factory is the result of a public-private partnership — in which the state retains ownership of the plant and machinery to discourage the company from moving out, in an environment where states are competing heavily against one another to attract businesses. The Buffalo area lost 10,000 manufacturing jobs over the past decade. The deal also contains a clause that requires the company pay significant fines if projected employment levels aren’t met.

The project, which is the largest in Buffalo’s history, is ahead of schedule. The plant is expected to be operational in early 2017. By that time it will employ some 3,000 workers, spinning off another 2,000 supporting roles in the local economy. That’s enough to drop the region’s unemployment rate by a full percentage point. Hiring begins this fall.

The project could be considered a case study in reversing recent economic trends. Not only is the plant being built on the site of the long-shuttered Republic Steel plant, but, with it, the company will insource its solar panels, rather than purchase them from other suppliers. Last week, SolarCity announced a new financing program to boost solar sales among small- and medium-sized businesses.

The plant is expected to produce 1 gigawatt of solar capacity per year, slightly more than the company currently buys from suppliers. SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rives said, “My goal would be to do 5 gigawatts after this one.” An additional site would be required for that, and speculation is that it would be someplace nearby. “It sets up the state to be the solar capital of the country. It creates manufacturing, it creates a market, and it creates infrastructure for how clean-energy companies will work together.”

The new panels will be based on technology from Silevo, a company that SolarCity bought last year. Silevo’s panels, which utilize a proprietary device architecture, deliver a higher voltage and have demonstrated efficiency as high a 24 percent. With higher efficiency, fewer modules are needed for a given power level, leading to reduced cost.

Momentum for alternatives to fossil fuels continues to build as President Barack Obama and the EPA recently announced a finalized Clean Power Plan that will provide incentives for states to move away from carbon-emitting power generation. The plan calls for a 32 percent reduction of carbon emissions relative to a 2005 baseline.

Image credit: Flickr/governorandrewcuomo

RP Siegel

RP Siegel, author and inventor, shines a powerful light on numerous environmental and technological topics. His work has appeared in Triple Pundit, GreenBiz, Justmeans, CSRWire, Sustainable Brands, PolicyInnovations, Social Earth, 3BL Media, ThomasNet, Huffington Post, Strategy+Business, Mechanical Engineering, and engineering.com among others . He is the co-author, with Roger Saillant, of Vapor Trails, an adventure novel that shows climate change from a human perspective. RP is a professional engineer - a prolific inventor with 52 patents and President of Rain Mountain LLC a an independent product development group. RP recently returned from Abu Dhabi where he traveled as the winner of the 2015 Sustainability Week blogging competition.Contact: bobolink52@gmail.com