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SolarCity eager to tap local supplier base

The search has begun for suppliers to serve SolarCity’s massive solar panel plant rising on South Park Avenue, and local companies are welcome.

SolarCity pledges to create 2,900 jobs at the RiverBend complex under construction, with a projected 1,460 from employees at the plant and 1,440 jobs from suppliers. While SolarCity’s own hiring is underway, project leaders say local suppliers are well-suited to provide some of the products and materials the plant will need.

“It’s a great supplier network you have locally,” said Alain E. Kaloyeros, president of the SUNY Polytechnic Institute. “Some of the suppliers overlap between different industries. And with the medical industry you have here, and the materials industry, there is enough qualified suppliers to benefit from, in addition to the ones we’re going to bring in.”

Kaloyeros is a key player in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s effort to make Buffalo a clean-energy hub through the Buffalo Billion economic development initiative. He spoke Friday to The Buffalo News editorial board along with Howard Zemsky, president and CEO of Empire State Development.

Kaloyeros said the factory is on schedule and under budget. The state is pouring $750 million into building and equipping the plant. The first machines for the plant are expected to arrive in the fall, and will be stored until early-stage production begins, likely in the first quarter of 2016. The plant is expected to reach full-scale production in the first half of 2017.

California-based SolarCity has already started hiring locally. Kaloyeros indicated SolarCity’s area job total could actually surpass 3,000, based on the partners and contractors SolarCity will need at or near RiverBend. “Those are conversations now ongoing,” he said, declining to name the companies.

He said SolarCity will require an “ecosystem” of suppliers, “all the functions that you need to run an advanced high-tech manufacturing facility and help develop this business.”

Local companies are already benefiting through building the facility, Kaloyeros said. And he mentioned a nearby “air products” company with a large workforce – he did not identify it, but it sounded like Praxair – as an example of local suppliers which are prime supplier candidates. “We don’t have a contract with them yet, because it’s too premature.”

Organizations like the Buffalo Niagara Partnership and Buffalo Niagara Enterprise are working on creating supplier connections with SolarCity, said Peter Cutler, an Empire State Development representative. On June 18, the partnership will host a presentation by Vinayak Gupta, a SolarCity executive, at the Hyatt Regency Buffalo on how the factory is trying to meet its supply chain needs. (Details are available at thepartnership.org/eventscalendar.)

“There’s a lot of opportunity for chemical suppliers and other suppliers that Western New York is pretty rich in,” Zemsky said.

Kaloyeros said SolarCity would prefer to use local suppliers, partly for their local knowledge and also for logistical reasons. “Think of the savings you can achieve by using the local supplier network, as opposed to having to ship things from other places.”

Zemsky said any number of the Buffalo Billion initiatives draw on resources in the Buffalo region for supporting advanced manufacturing, making that a logical focus for investment.

Kaloyeros said he was confident the region has sufficient training capabilities for SolarCity’s growing workforce. As crews install and test their equipment, he said, they will train employees to use that equipment. “It’s not like on Day One, we’re going to need to train 3,000 people.”

Kaloyeros estimated that about 70 percent of the jobs involved in running the plant would require two-year community college degrees, or even high school graduates who receive training, with starting annual pay of about $45,000 to $50,000. Other jobs will require more-advanced degrees. “So there’s lots of opportunities for the local workforce.”

That includes retraining workers from other industries, not just new college graduates, he said. “Lifetime learning in this industry is real.” SolarCity recently said it plans to have 200 employees hired by year’s end.

Kaloyeros was asked about two other potential projects linked to RiverBend: LED light maker Soraa and solar panel maker Solar Frontier.

When plans for RiverBend were announced in late 2013, Soraa was described as an anchor tenant along with Silevo, the solar panel maker that SolarCity purchased. When SolarCity said it would increase the capacity of its plant fivefold, state officials began searching for a new place to locate Soraa and its projected 375 jobs.

“We’re still in the conversation about Soraa where [the] best location is,” Kaloyeros said. “Regardless of what happens with Soraa, Gov. Cuomo has a commitment to Buffalo. I’m not saying there is a decision. All I’m saying is, the conversations are ongoing for where is the best site for them. There is no space for them at RiverBend, it’s obvious. But Gov. Cuomo’s commitment to Buffalo is stronger than ever, and Buffalo is not going to lose jobs.” (A Soraa representative did not return a message to comment on its plans.)

Meanwhile, the state has been talking to Japan-based Solar Frontier about the possibility of opening a thin-film solar panel plant in Buffalo. While Solar Frontier has not committed to building a Buffalo plant, the company is still exploring what kind of facility it would need and where, Kaloyeros said.

“They got acquired by a bigger company, and so they just got approval to re-engage New York in terms of a location in Buffalo,” he said.

email: mglynn@buffnews.com