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SolarCity’s structural steel rising

The construction of the sprawling SolarCity complex at RiverBend in South Buffalo is moving into its next phase, with the first structural steel going up for what will become one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories.

Despite the record cold this month and November’s record snowfall, the project remains on schedule, with expectations that SolarCity will be able to start installing some equipment in the $900 million factory early next year and that production will reach full capacity in the first quarter of 2017.

Crews from LPCiminelli, the project’s general contractor, have been working full-bore at the 88-acre site of the former Republic Steel plant since September and succeeded in meeting their goal of starting to put up the factory’s structural steel during February. Crews also have nearly completed drilling the 5,500 pilings down into the bedrock 70 feet underground that will support the foundation for the 1.2-million-square-foot factory.

“This has not been an easy winter for construction,” said Louis P. Ciminelli, chairman and CEO of LPCiminelli.

“The men and women on the RiverBend project are real professionals who have continued to make progress despite the harsh conditions,” Ciminelli said. “It is a testament to good planning and good execution that we have been able to stay on schedule and meet the structural steel milestone.”

The plant will have the capacity to produce enough solar panels to generate 1,000 megawatts of electricity, making it one of the largest solar panel production facilities in the world. The factory, backed by $750 million in state funding, is the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion investment plan, with expectations that it will bring nearly 2,900 jobs to the region, either at the factory or at suppliers and companies that provide services to the facility.

With the structural steel now going up, crews will be 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 during the first quarter of next year, with production of solar modules gradually ramping up during 2016 as the company works out the kinks in its new factory.

As construction has advanced, the number of workers on the site has been growing steadily, rising from about 70 in mid-December to more that 200 today. Upward of 1,600 people are expected to be working on the site this summer as construction hits its peak.

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