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SolarCity efforts continuing in Buffalo

With its business model facing some economic challenges and its new solar panel manufacturing plant caught up in a federal probe, SolarCity Corp.’s head of human resources for Buffalo on Thursday reiterated the company’s commitment to create nearly 1,500 jobs in Buffalo and spend more than $5 billion on capital, operations and supply chain support over the next decade.

Speaking to a commercial real estate trade group, Dan Harvey said construction of the 1.2-million-square-foot solar panel manufacturing plant at RiverBend is on track to be fully operational by the end of next year. He said the outside of the facility is about 90 percent complete, and officials hope to start putting equipment inside the factory this summer.

The company now employs 26 people in Buffalo, and has begun hiring the rest of its local workforce, with its employment website now active. It has also been holding discussions with various parties about its supply chain needs.

He stressed that the company is “viable” and growing, with a solar panel that produces more electricity and is more efficient than most of what is produced in China today. “We’re bringing jobs back to North America, and we’re doing it with a panel that works a lot better,” Harvey said.

The 24-hour facility will operate with two 12-hour shifts each day. He said the company is already working with University at Buffalo, SUNY Buffalo State, Erie Community College and Rochester Institute of Technology to ensure training of potential employees, and is also encouraging local high schools to prepare students for careers that “don’t require a full four-year degree.”

Founded by brothers Lyndon and Peter Rive on July 4, 2006 – the “independence day for America from utility power generation,” Harvey said – SolarCity now has 300,000 customers in 19 states, with over 14,000 employees. It’s the largest installer of solar panels in North America for homes, and is now expanding into small-scale commercial installation.

New York State, as part of Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion project, is spending $750 million to build the plant on South Park Avenue in South Buffalo. The state will own the facility and equipment, which SolarCity will lease.

In exchange, the California-based company, which is spending $150 million on the project, promised to create at least 5,000 direct jobs statewide over the next 10 years – up from 3,540 originally – while officials projected another 3,000 supply-chain jobs as a result. In Buffalo, that includes 1,460 SolarCity jobs, and another 1,500 spinoff jobs at suppliers, vendors and other companies that want to do business with SolarCity.

Last October, in response to a state request for clarity, the company specified that its local employment would consist of at least 500 operators, engineers, technicians and other manufacturing positions in the plant itself, plus 960 sales, project development, installation, management and other related jobs. And if SolarCity needs more manufacturing capacity, Harvey said, New York State has the right of first refusal for the company’s next factory, for the first 60 days after SolarCity determines such a facility is needed.

The 1-megawatt facility will be filled with highly sophisticated and robotic manufacturing equipment, with an automated process capable of producing 8,000 to 10,000 solar panels each day when it’s completed. In all, Harvey said, 25 semi-truck loads of materials will come in each day and an equal amount will go out, for delivery directly to one of the company’s four distribution warehouses.

The construction project itself has been caught up recently in a federal probe of construction contracting statewide by U.S. Attorney Preet Bharara in New York City, but the investigation is focused on developers, contractors and lobbyists, and not on SolarCity or other companies involved in Cuomo’s economic development initiatives.