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Swarms of workers turning SolarCity into complex panel factory

The parking lot already is packed outside the SolarCity factory in South Buffalo, months before the solar systems company makes its first solar panel.

The vehicles are from the more than 850 workers constructing the $900 million factory that the state is building and equipping for SolarCity – the centerpiece project in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative.

Outside, the gold hue windows, along with a splash of blue color on a white exterior, gives the building the color scheme that one of the factory’s key backers, the SUNY Polytechnic Institute, favors.

Inside the 1.2 million-square foot-factory – the size of 10 Home Depot stores – on a recent January afternoon, the beeping from dozens of lift trucks created an off-key symphony as workers installed a spider web of duct work, piping and wiring that is supported by a lattice of overhead steel beams running the length of the factory.

“They still need to stitch it all together,” said Frank Ciminelli II, senior executive vice president at LPCiminelli, the Buffalo-based company that is the project’s general contractor.

Even with a full complement of workers on hand, the factory is so sprawling that it’s not crowded inside. In fact, the workers are so widely scattered that they use carts to get from one end of the factory to the other.

Within the next month or so, the construction work force is expected to peak around 1,000 to 1,100 people – less than the high point of 1,500 that LPCiminelli initially estimated because the contractor has been able to spread the workload more evenly.

While the factory is almost completely enclosed, there’s still plenty of work to do inside.

The systems that will supply industrial gases and chemicals needed to produce the solar panels still need to be installed. A water purification system that will be able to supply water with five levels of purity, ranging from purified tap water to ultra-pure water with only the tiniest of impurities, is partly in place. Wastewater tanks lie on their sides, waiting to be installed.

Outside, a half-dozen temporary heaters warm the vast interior space. Once the factory is up and running, they won’t be needed. Heat from the production equipment will be used to keep the building warm. It won’t have it’s own heating system because it won’t be needed, Ciminelli said.

With more than three dozen different contractors working on the site, it’s no small task to coordinate their activity and keep them working in sync. About 40 LPCiminelli employees are focused on coordinating the different phases of the construction work at the biggest individual building project that Western New York has seen in decades, if ever.

“Everything is just manufactured at a larger-than-normal office building scale,” Ciminelli said.

The plant eventually will have five individual assembly lines that will be able to produce as many 10,000 solar panels a day once the plant is running full tilt, probably sometime during the spring of 2017.

SolarCity is expected to start installing production equipment this spring – even as construction work continues on other parts of the factory – and begin limited manufacturing later this year.


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