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Another solar panel maker interested in Western New York

A second solar panel manufacturer is showing interest in opening a factory in the Buffalo Niagara region as part of the state’s efforts to develop a clean energy hub in Buffalo.

State officials said Tuesday they are optimistic that it’s going to happen.

Solar Frontier, a Japanese company that is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of solar panels, has signed an agreement to explore the possibility of the manufacturer opening a solar module factory in Buffalo, while also setting up the company’s North American headquarters at the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering in Albany.

If a future deal is struck to locate the factory and the North American headquarters in New York, the company could create as many as 250 research, development and manufacturing jobs in the state, with a total investment, including payroll, that approaches $678 million over seven years.

While a definitive deal to locate the facilities in New York has not yet been reached, a top SUNY official said he was optimistic that it would happen within a few months, with the factory targeted to begin production as early as the end of next year.

“There are still some T’s to be crossed and some I’s to be dotted,” said Pradeep Haldar, the vice president of entrepreneurship, innovation and clean energy programs at the nanoscience college. “We wouldn’t release something like this if we didn’t think there was a very good chance that this is going to happen.”

If Solar Frontier eventually decides to build a factory in Western New York, it would join Silevo, a Fremont, Calif., solar panel manufacturer that has agreed to become one of the first two tenants in the RiverBend clean energy technology hub in South Buffalo, as the second solar cell producer in the region.

“This is a big move for them,” said Jerry Gretzinger, a spokesman for the nanoscience college.

Another California-based company, LED lighting producer Soraa, also has agreed to set up a production and research center in the RiverBend complex on the former Republic Steel site, which is one of the signature projects under the state’s Buffalo Billion initiative to jump-start the long-sagging Buffalo Niagara economy with fast-growing, technology-based businesses.

While Solar Frontier would seem to be a natural fit for the RiverBend project, Gretzinger said it’s too early to say whether the site is being targeted.

“It’s probably too site specific,” he said. “With the memorandum of understanding, nothing specific indicates RiverBend.”

State officials described Solar Frontier’s collaboration with the nanoscience college as an important step in the company’s plans to establish production facilities outside Japan, where it currently produces all of its modules at three factories with a combined annual production capacity of almost 1,000 megawatts. An additional factory with 150 megawatts of annual capacity is scheduled to open in Japan early next year.

A solar panel factory in Buffalo likely would have the annual capacity to produce solar panels that could generate “hundreds of megawatts” of electricity – a significant amount by industry standards, Haldar said. The Silevo facility planned for the RiverBend project would have an annual capacity of 200 megawatts.

“Solar Frontier recognizes New York is uniquely capable of supporting the level of research, development and manufacturing it requires,” said Alain Kaloyeros, the chief executive officer of the nanoscience college, in a statement.

“Collaboration would provide Solar Frontier the opportunity for significant growth, by establishing overseas production bases and advancing our company as a global leader in solar energy,” said Hiroto Tamai, Solar Frontier’s president, in a statement.

Solar Frontier officials said the agreement calls for the company and the nanoscience college to conduct a feasibility study that examines the economic and technical issues surrounding the establishment of a joint R&D and manufacturing facility in Buffalo.

“Establishing overseas production bases is at the core of our midterm growth plan,” Tamai said.

Kaloyeros said Solar Frontier’s interest grew out of the state’s NY-Sun and Energy Highway initiatives aimed at boosting green energy research and manufacturing.

The agreement also draws upon the resources and expertise of the nanoscience college, which state officials also have touted as a key selling point in the efforts to lure companies to the RiverBend project. Both of the announced tenants in RiverBend use production methods that are similar to the computer chip production processes that have helped spawn a thriving semiconductor industry in the Capitol District.

Solar Frontier said earlier this month that its thin-film modules had achieved an efficiency rate of 20.9 percent – the highest ever for that type of solar panel. The company, which in January completed an 11.6-megawatt solar power plant at the main airport in Osaka, Japan, earlier this month agreed to build a 29-megawatt solar power plant next to the Nagasaki airport.

Silevo, which produces solar panels using a hybrid technology that combines elements of standard crystalline silicon solar cells and thin-film solar cells, has said its panels can top 21 percent in efficiency.

Solar Frontier is a subsidiary of Showa Shell Sekiyu, a publicly traded company based in Tokyo that also has extensive oil refining operations. Global energy giant Royal Dutch Shell owns a third of Showa Shell Sekiyu, and Saudi Aramco holds a 15 percent stake in the company. Showa Shell Sekiyu ranks 436th on Fortune magazine’s list of the 500 biggest global corporations, with annual revenues of $27 billion.