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SolarCity’s continued fine-tuning adds to the impact of RiverBend factory

The dual announcements by SolarCity that it will start making solar panels at its South Buffalo factory sooner than expected and that it plans on manufacturing solar roofing at the site adds to the buzz about the biggest piece of the Buffalo Billion.

The early opening of the RiverBend factory – now expected in June – and a big increase in the plant’s capacity beyond the 1 gigawatt originally planned – significantly increase the potential benefits of the factory.

News business reporter David Robinson dug into the details in a talk with Peter Rive, SolarCity’s chief technology officer. Rive said that improvements in the equipment that will be used by the factory, combined with a more efficient layout within the plant, should allow the factory to make more solar panels than would have been possible under its original design.

The SolarCity plant at RiverBend is heavily subsidized, with $750 million of state money out of the governor’s Buffalo Billion. Because of the state’s well-deserved reputation as anti-business, that is what it takes to attract a major employer. But it should prove to have been money well spent, given the 1,460 jobs in the Buffalo area – 500 of them in manufacturing – it is expected to create.

SolarCity is making a substantial investment, having agreed to spend $5 billion in New York State and create 5,000 jobs statewide. There is a heavy penalty, $41 million per year, if it doesn’t come through, as recently explained in a PolitiFact report by Dan Clark.

SolarCity was not the only spot of good news for the region last week. GEICO’s $15 million expansion, with $11 million from the company and the rest from Empire State Development Corp., will add 600 jobs to its workforce of 2,800. It is slated to be one of Western New York’s largest private-sector employers. Both GEICO and The News are owned by Berkshire Hathaway.

A regional attitude adjustment is under way here, with companies like SolarCity slowly eroding the mindset that we are destined to remain stuck in the past.

High-tech companies setting up shop here represent change – rapid change.

SolarCity’s factory is nearing completion and the company is still updating what it will produce and how it will be produced, taking advantage of new technologies. An example is the just-announced roofing product that will be integrated with solar panels.

This region is not used to the tech industry roller coaster, with its highs and lows and good ideas leading to better ideas. SolarCity is taking a good idea – solar panels – and making it better by making the panels more efficient, and therefore cheaper.

SolarCity has had its challenges lately, including continued financial losses despite a big increase in sales, and the controversy surrounding the proposed $2.6 billion acquisition of SolarCity by electric vehicle and battery maker Tesla Motors.

Tesla’s expertise is electric cars and improved batteries to be made at a gigafactory in Nevada. Elon Musk, who owns more than 20 percent of the stock in each company, is SolarCity’s chairman and the CEO of Tesla. His vision integrates electric vehicles, improved batteries and rooftop solar energy systems. Buffalo will be a key component when the largest solar panel factory in the Western Hemisphere is up and running.

SolarCity is part of the region’s rise from no growth to steady growth, a rise that is making national headlines. The optimism generated by the factory is well founded.

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