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SolarCity recommits to 1,460 Buffalo jobs, but more will be R&D and sales

Although green energy companies face mounting challenges in launching their new technologies, SolarCity Corp. says it remains committed to creating 1,460 new jobs in Buffalo.

The California company that will occupy the Western Hemisphere’s largest solar panel manufacturing plant forecasts more professional and better-paying positions at its Buffalo operations, while dropping jobs at the gigantic RiverBend complex to a minimum of 500.

“We’ll augment those manufacturing jobs with head count in sales, project development and other functions,” said SolarCity spokeswoman Kady Cooper. “It’s better for the region as it allows us to create a wider range of jobs that will be appropriate for a broader range of potential applicants.”

The Buffalo News reported last October that SEC filings indicated SolarCity’s manufacturing force would dip to a mimimum of 500 at RiverBend, far below what was originally intended. The News also reported then that the company would continue to honor its promise of 1,460 jobs in Buffalo while also saying it expected to hire an additional 1,500 workers throughout New York State.

Following Channel 2 News and Investigative Post reports Friday highlighting the drop in manufacturing hires at RiverBend, SolarCity on Saturday confirmed its earlier commitments.

“In October’s filing, reiterated in two SEC filings since, SolarCity increased the total number of jobs we would provide to the State of New York from 3,540 to 5,000 – while maintaining the same job commitment of 1,460 to the City of Buffalo,” Cooper said.

There is no question that SolarCity and other energy companies face challenges in the years ahead. In the same October document reaffirming its job promises for Buffalo, SolarCity listed several “market risk” problems and situations that could spell trouble.

They include changes in government regulations of the electric utility industry; regulatory limitations on technical considerations; continuing access to rebates, tax credits and other financial incentives; access to additional financing, maintaining cash flow, and even sustaining profitability in the face of continuing losses.

SolarCity earnings report issued last week posted a record net loss of $281 million in 2016, which is 21 percent of its value.

But the company has also said it expects to overcome its obstacles and eventually turn profitable.

According to the SEC filings, the company also maintains its agreement with New York State to pay $41.2 million in penalties in any year it fails to meet specific investment and job creation targets.

“SolarCity is contractually obligated to employ more New Yorkers than ever before,” said David Doyle, spokesman for SUNY Polytechnic Institute, which is instrumental in getting the RiverBend plant built.

“Automation at the plant means more hires can be directed toward research and development, as well as sales, installation, facilities, and management positions,” Doyle said. “Also note that the automation of the facility will extend its lifetime from 10 to 20 years.

“So, the remaining 1,460 jobs will be with more R&D, management, and business jobs which pay on average two to three times the two-year degree manufacturing jobs,” he added.

Cooper, the SolarCity spokeswoman, added that at least 500 manufacturing jobs will be based at the South Park Avenue plant, but that many more other kinds of jobs will develop in offices space like what the company already has established at the nearby Larkinville complex. SolarCity now employs 25 people there now.

“We’ll still have an additional 900-plus in the City of Buffalo,” she said. “These will be very, very technical hires at a higher level and at higher pay.”

An additional local benefit, she said, will be SolarCity employees based in Buffalo assigned to companywide projects.

“We could have people working in Buffalo on cross-functional teams with offices across the country,” Cooper said.

She also said the company will still require all 1.2 million square feet at the RiverBend plant, because the same automation that reduces the need for workers will require more space on the manufacturing floor.

“People take up the least amount of space,” Cooper said. “We haven’t changed our space requirements, our production capacity or the yield.”

email: rmccarthy@buffnews.com