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SolarCity and Buffalo’s Transformation

Words by Leon Kaye

Buffalo, New York, is now digging itself (or actually melting itself) out of mountains of snow, but the recent megastorm and its cold winters are not going to stop the city from becoming an important solar energy hub. Earlier this fall, SolarCity announced it would build a 1.2 million-square-foot photovoltaic solar panel factory, which will be one of the largest in the world, on the site of a former steel mill in Buffalo. The massive factory, another one of Elon Musk’s projects, in part is happening because of the state of New York’s doubling down on solar as an economic generator in the Empire State.

But subsidies and tax credits are not the only reason why SolarCity chose Buffalo to build what will soon be the largest solar factory in the western hemisphere. As in the case of its “rust belt” cousins, Cleveland, Detroit and Pittsburgh, Buffalo offers companies such as SolarCity many benefits: solid universities churning out fresh and hungry graduates, affordable living, a renewed optimism and an urban environment many millennials currently crave. The result is that an industry usually identified with Silicon Valley and America’s Sunbelt could play a large role in Buffalo’s resurgence.

Of course, it helps that New York is joining other northeastern states, including New Jersey and Massachusetts, in developing an aggressive renewable energy agenda. And most of New York’s focus on economic redevelopment has been on the western part of the state, which has long struggled due to the decline in manufacturing. Now those manufacturing sites are offering clean energy investment opportunities, such as a wind power and solar project underway on what was formerly a huge Bethlehem Steel facility. These changes have not been lost on the local press, which has touted the new industries rising on sites long dormant and what had been a depressing reminder of what Buffalo used to be. After decades of brain drain, Buffalo is starting to experience an uptick in 'brain-gain.'

The result of this new wave of optimism is that more millennials, who do not have a memory of Buffalo’s past as a manufacturing hub, are moving back to the Lake Erie region as they seek jobs in new sectors that are demonstrating strength. Considering the interest millennials as a group show towards renewable energy and environmental issues, it will hardly be a surprise of Buffalo becomes a new energy hub. Local activism is also having a role in raising awareness of energy efficiency and the role green jobs can have in boosting the local economy.

Buffalo is hardly out of the woods. As in the case of many cities, education and health care are still the city’s main drivers of economic growth while the renewable energy industry is still at a relatively nascent stage. Not everyone is buying into the Queen City’s turnaround: 100 years ago it was one of the 10 largest cities in the U.S., but it has long been in decline, though there is a chance of a slight increase in the next few years. Nevertheless, the SolarCity project, which is now is five times the size of its original plan, will send a signal to other companies that doing business on the shores of Lake Erie is a smart move. Plus, a massive factory can have a multiplier effect, similar to what Musk’s plan to build batteries in Nevada may do for the Reno area. Urbanization and the new industries associated with this long-term trend could result in a very different Buffalo a decade from now.

Image credit: Fortunate4now

Leon Kaye is based in California and most recently worked for a renewable energy investment company in the Middle East. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter. Other thoughts of his are on his site, greengopost.com.

Leon Kaye headshotLeon Kaye

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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