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SolarCity factory slowly taking shape

The SolarCity solar panel factory on South Park Avenue in Buffalo is slowly taking shape, with a steel rib of the plant now stretching nearly from one end of the site to the other.

And now that the weather has finally cleared, the pace of work is expected to pick up rapidly on the sprawling 1.2-million-square-foot factory – big enough to hold eight Home Depot stores.

On Monday, about 250 construction workers were working on the 88-acre RiverBend site on the banks of the Buffalo River, drilling steel pilings, erecting structural steel and pouring the factory’s concrete slab. Crews have started installing the metal roof frame on the northernmost portion of the building as they push toward a goal of having the plant enclosed this fall.

But that’s just the start. Once construction hits its peak this summer, the workforce at the factory site will be six times bigger, topping 1,500 people, said Frank L. Ciminelli II, the executive vice president of LPCiminelli, the Buffalo-based contractor that is overseeing work at the site. While work now spans two shifts, crews will be busy around the clock once construction hits full stride.

“It’s quite the robust undertaking,” Ciminelli said.

It’s a complicated undertaking, too, believed to be one of the largest brownfield construction projects in the state, combining the challenges of building a factory that will be filled with cutting-edge solar energy technology on a parcel that is filled with remnants from 74 years of steelmaking at the former Republic Steel complex.

And then there’s the weather. The city’s record-setting snowfall forced LPCiminelli crews to remove 50,000 tons of snow from the site as they worked through the winter to stay 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.

“It’s a huge undertaking when you consider the scale of the facility, the weather and the nature of the site,” Ciminelli said. “Every day is a new adventure for us.”

The plant, the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion investment plan, will have the annual 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. Once it is running at full capacity, the factory is expected to bring nearly 2,900 jobs to the region, at the factory and at suppliers and companies that provide services to the facility.

The state has committed $750 million in taxpayer funds for the project in hopes that it will create the critical mass within the solar industry to help turn the Buffalo Niagara region into a magnet for further investment by green energy and solar power companies.

Shell rising

So far, crews have erected about 60 percent of the structural steel shell for the factory’s all-important utility building – a 250,000-square-foot structure that will house key equipment that will provide the factory with its water, electricity, chemical and industrial gases. About 20 percent of the structural steel shell has been put up for the 850,000-square-foot portion of the building that will house its manufacturing operations, Ciminelli said.

Work on the site began in earnest in September, with much of the activity through the winter centered around drilling 5,700 steel pilings down into the bedrock 70 feet underground to support the factory’s foundation. So far, about 5,400 of the pilings have been drilled as crews have steadily worked their way from the northern end of the 88-acre site toward the southernmost portion.

As the pilings have been drilled, other crews have been following them, pouring the factory’s foundation. The plant’s massive concrete slab, which will provide the base for the building’s floor, will be 8 inches thick in the office portion of the building, a foot thick in the production part of the building and 19 inches thick in the portion of the building that will house the plant’s utilities and other heavy-duty equipment.

Crews began putting up the plant’s structural steel in mid-February, following the path previously blazed by the piling drivers and the concrete workers. Roofers and plumbers started working at the site last week.

“It’s such a big building, you can’t wait for one guy to get out of the way so you can begin,” Ciminelli said.

That’s because the SolarCity plant will stretch for nearly a third of a mile from one end to the other, said David Vawter, one of LPCiminelli’s project managers on the site. The plant will be more than 700 feet wide.

The plant will require its own $9 million water purification plant, capable of providing the factory with five different levels of water purity, ranging from that of tap water to ultra-pure water that has as little as 1 micron of impurity, Ciminelli said.

It also will have its own wastewater treatment plant, costing $18 million to $20 million, with the capacity to take in as much as 1,200 gallons of water per minute, with 75 percent of the water being recycled so it can be used again in the factory’s operations.

“It puts the water back into the system cleaner than it was when it came in,” Ciminelli said.

The goal, Ciminelli said, is to finish enclosing the factory’s shell by October, so SolarCity can start installing equipment inside, probably by early 2016. SolarCity executives said they expect to spend most of 2016 working out the kinks in the factory and gradually increasing its production, with the facility reaching full production in the first quarter of 2017.

River bank restored

Once the equipment is installed, the factory is expected to have five separate assembly lines, each with the annual capacity to produce enough panels to generate 200 megawatts of electricity.

To get to that point, LPCiminelli is bringing in three to seven loads of steel each day. The factory is expected to require 14 million pounds of structural steel.

Along the plant’s exterior, solar panels are expected to be installed amid the site’s 850 parking spaces and greenspace.

The stretch of the Buffalo River that runs along the western end of the property and whose bend gives the site its name also is being restored by Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper, which this summer is planning to launch the second phase of its reclamation project to restore and reshape the industrialized shoreline.

Buffalo Niagara Riverkeeper is creating a 150-foot buffer separating the river from the factory site and stretching into 3.5 acres of property north of the site, connecting with another 2,400 feet of shoreline that was reclaimed during the first phase of the project, which was completed last year. Future work could incorporate a greenway trail into the buffer zone.

The work this summer will include reshaping and regrading the shoreline to make it less steep, bringing in clean soil and planting a variety of native trees, shrubs and grasses.

“The whole concept is to make the river more accessible,” said Jill Jedlicka, Riverkeeper’s executive director.