Involvement of billionaire Elon Musk is a vote of confidence in RiverBend - The Buffalo News
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Involvement of billionaire Elon Musk is a vote of confidence in RiverBend

The question, we suspect, is rattling around in the heads of almost all Western New Yorkers: Could the news about RiverBend really be true?

Is it actually possible that Buffalo, with the considerable assistance of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, has lucked into a game-changing economic development project that stands to directly create 1,000 new jobs in a 21st century industry – and possibly many more jobs in its ripple effects?

Buffalo has learned about silver bullet plans that turned out to be nothing more than noise from a cap gun. Remember the Adelphia skyscraper that was going to be built downtown? That was before Adelphia went belly-up and its principals went to the penitentiary.

The difference is that RiverBend is no toy pistol fantasy. The plan is pure cannon fire. It is backed by the State of New York, which also helped create a functioning high-tech economic landscape around Albany, and the vision of a successful billionaire entrepreneur, Elon Musk. This one looks real.

The story began with the Buffalo Billion that Cuomo pledged to the city to reignite its long-stagnant economy. A key part of that was RiverBend, a $225 million project in which two small companies were tapped to launch a clean-energy hub along the Buffalo River. It was an exciting announcement, with the project expected to produce 475 jobs and put Buffalo in the forefront of a developing industry sure to be globally relevant for decades to come.

Last week, though, came the surprise announcement that Silevo, one of the companies involved in the deal, had agreed to be acquired by SolarCity, one of the nation’s biggest installers of solar systems, and backed by Musk. With that, the project and its implications expanded radically, while simultaneously dealing with a concern that the small companies originally involved had too short a track record for anyone to count on the project’s success. Musk brings with him a vision, a record of success and the money to produce broad-based confidence in the project.

Howard A. Zemsky, co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, put it into perspective. “Our partners went from being a promising company with an emerging technology to a publicly traded company with a market value of almost $6 billion,” he said. That’s credibility.

RiverBend was never alone in the targeted investments planned for the Buffalo Billion, but it was always the most intriguing, for its focus on the growing industrial sector of clean energy, its research component to go along with its manufacturing aspect and its location in South Buffalo, along a bend in the Buffalo River.

If it all works out – and there is no reason thus far to think it won’t – Buffalo could be home to one of the largest solar panel factories in the world. That, too, is credibility.

In fact, the expansion of the project will likely prompt a redesign of the RiverBend complex. What was originally envisioned as a series of buildings running along a central spine may now become five times bigger, with fewer buildings that are each larger than those originally planned.

In addition, there is a possibility that the region will be able to attract another major solar panel manufacturer, Solar Frontier. That would further establish the critical mass needed to attract suppliers and other ancillary jobs. Discussions with Solar Frontier are under way.

SolarCity, alone, already has more than 110,000 customers and expects to install solar energy systems with a total capacity of up to 550 megawatts this year. Currently, though, SolarCity installs panels that it buys from other companies. With the acquisition of Silevo, those panels will be manufactured at its own plant in Buffalo, probably in about two years.

SolarCity executives believe the company’s expansion ultimately won’t be handled just by the initial Buffalo operation. Even though this plant will be one of the world’s largest, plants seeking maximum economies of scale that will drive prices down could be 10 times the size. Thus, there could be even more jobs in store for Buffalo, if the city is able to secure that possible expansion.

It’s big news, though Western New Yorkers can be forgiven if those nagging doubts keep coming back, like a pesky mosquito. This, time, though, they have the ammunition to kill the doubts.

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