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Crews unearth remnants of RiverBend’s past at SolarCity site

At the far southeastern corner of the RiverBend site sits proof of how challenging it is to build a new solar panel factory at a site that once was home to a sprawling steel plant.

Tucked at the far edge of the 88-acre property are two rusted rail cars, once used to carry iron ore on railways that spanned the former Republic Steel plant on South Park Avenue. The rail cars, with their “Hutton” steel nameplates still attached, are flanked by molds and blocks of steel left over from the days when Republic Steel was a big part of Buffalo’s then-thriving industrial backbone.

A few hundred yards away, sitting vertically like a pair of industrial-sized cones, are a pair of 10-foot turbines that once were used to generate electricity in the steel plant’s boiler house. One has been turned into a makeshift Christmas tree, decorated with lights and colorfully painted tools that once were used by Republic Steel workers.

All of it was discovered by construction crews as they began digging into the brownfield site during the first phase of construction for SolarCity’s $900 million solar panel factory – a massive 1 million square foot complex that will be one of the world’s biggest solar module production facilities when it is running at full speed sometime during 2016.

And all of it illustrates the unusual challenges that crews from developer LPCiminelli face as they scramble to meet the tight timeline that state and SolarCity officials agreed to in late summer, clearing the way for construction to begin on what Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has touted as a clean-energy hub that will be a vital part in the Buffalo Niagara region’s revitalization.

“The ground holds many secrets there,” said David Doyle, a spokesman for the State University of New York, the state entity orchestrating the project, a centerpiece of the governor’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative that promises to bring 2,900 jobs at the factory and from suppliers to the region.

It is one of the biggest construction projects ever in the Buffalo Niagara region and one of the largest brownfield reclamation jobs in the state, said Frank Ciminelli, the Buffalo-based contractor’s senior executive vice president.

The plant itself will be three times bigger than any similar solar facility in the United States, covering about 30 acres. The plant is so big that 12 buildings the size of the Cabela’s store in Cheektowaga could fit inside it. Cement trucks pouring cement at one end of the site look like far-away toy trucks from the other end.

The weather can bring some surprises, too. Last month’s snowstorm shut down the site for four days, and then once crews were able to get back to work, they spent another four days removing snow from the property.

That put construction work about two weeks behind schedule, but Ciminelli thinks crews will be able to make up for lost time.

“We’re still of the mindset to start erecting steel in February,” he said. “But it’s tough to get some productivity when you don’t know what every shovel will pull out of the ground.”

Buried factory

After decades of steel-making on the site, Ciminelli officials knew they would encounter plenty of surprises. Company officials scoured old photographs and steel plant plans to get a sense of what used to be on the property before everything on the Republic site was razed and the property leveled decades ago, said Danielle Zientek, LP Ciminelli’s senior environmental health and safety manager.

The trouble was, when the Republic Steel buildings were torn down, much of the debris and equipment that had lingered on the property was simply pushed into the basements of the demolished buildings and covered over.

“Whatever was there, they demolished it, pushed it into the basement and covered it,” said Keegan Lachut, a Ciminelli operating engineer.

Some buried debris was so big, it had to be hauled away on an 18-wheeler. “You can tell it was a steel plant, let me put it that way,” Lachut said.

Crews from LPCiminelli have been on the RiverBend site since early summer, ever since the state completed its purchase of the property. But the scope of their work was limited to preliminary planning and early-stage site preparation because SolarCity hadn’t completed its $350 million acquisition of the tenant originally selected for the site, California solar panel maker Silevo. The state also hadn’t sealed its deal to invest $750 million in taxpayer funds in the plant for SolarCity, the nation’s biggest installer of residential solar energy systems.

Once SolarCity agreed to buy Silevo, it immediately quintupled the scope of the project to build a plant with the capacity to produce enough high-efficiency solar panels to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity each year.

Once those agreements were completed in late September, LPCiminelli ramped up the pace of work.

Sinking pilings

The factory is expected to employ 1,460 workers, with another 1,440 jobs created at the facility’s suppliers and service providers in the Buffalo area.

And while workers already have transformed the site in three months, the pace of the construction will grow exponentially as the winter turns to summer. About 70 people now are at the site, working 10-hour days with the help of 30 light plants to illuminate the area after the sun goes down. But when construction peaks during the summer, upwards of 1,600 will be on the job, said Kevin Shuler, an LPCiminelli vice president.

For now, much of the activity at RiverBend involves site work, probing the property for the foundations of the buildings that once were there, and driving in the more than 5,500 pilings that will be used to anchor the solar panel factory to the bedrock that lies about 70 feet underground.

Hundreds of cones mark sites within the property where crews have done preliminary digging. Deeper trenches along the northern end of the property reveal glimpses of concrete foundations that remain from the Republic plant.

So far, LPCiminelli crews, manning three air hammer rigs, have driven about 900 pilings down to the bedrock. And driving those pilings isn’t always easy. Crews typically start out by drilling a hole for each piling, and that’s when they sometimes make unexpected discoveries about what lies beneath, often including steel slabs or the basement floors of the buildings that once made up the steel plant.

LPCiminelli brought in a 200-ton excavator – transported to the site in pieces on five trucks – to dig out big chunks of debris. After they’re dug up, the biggest pieces are trucked over to “the boneyard,” a 20-feet high debris pile where crews separate the concrete from the recyclable steel and break it into smaller pieces.

“I think we were expecting the worst,” Ciminelli said. “We brought the right people and the right toys to the game.”

Plenty of cement

Once the pilings are in place, crews are starting to pour the concrete that will make up part of the foundation. “We’ll be pouring concrete from now until July, easily,” he said.

The plant’s massive concrete slab, which will provide the base for the building’s floor, will be the biggest part of that job. The plant’s slab will be 8 inches thick in the office portion of the building, but will require a foot of concrete in the production part of the building and 19 inches of concrete in the portion of the building that will house the plant’s utilities and other heavy-duty equipment.

In between, Ciminelli hopes to be able to start putting up the building’s structural steel in February and working to enclose the plant as the summer progresses. The goal is to have the building finished by the end of the year so SolarCity can start moving equipment into the plant.

SolarCity is expected to be able to reach full production at the RiverBend plant within three to six months after it installs its equipment in the factory. Depending on how fast the earlier phases of construction go, the plant could be fully operational sometime between March 2016 and the end of 2016, said Peter Cutler, a spokesman for Empire State Development.


RiverBend by the numbers

1 million: Factory size in square feet

12: Cabela’s stores could fit inside

900: 70-foot pilings driven into bedrock so far

5,500: Pilings that will be used to support the foundation

70: Construction workers currently working at the site

1,600: Workers expected during peak construction

$750 million: State’s commitment to build and equip the factory

2,900: Jobs SolarCity promises to create at the factory and its suppliers

Timeline: February 2015: Erection of structural steel begins.

Oct. 2015-March 2016: Period when building is to be completed.

Jan. 2016-June 2016: SolarCity to install equipment for three months after building is completed.

March 2016-Dec. 2016: Full production in three to six months of operation.

SOURCES: Empire State Development, LPCiminelli, SolarCity