Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo is standing by the state’s $750 million investment in a sprawling solar panel factory for SolarCity in South Buffalo.
In his first comments on the centerpiece project for the Buffalo Billion since SolarCity last week disclosed that it was facing a severe cash crunch and had briefly considered – and subsequently decided against – selling its solar panel manufacturing business, Cuomo said the Buffalo factory is part of a broader strategy focusing on the growth of the clean energy industry.
“Clean energy has to happen. That we know,” Cuomo said Wednesday in response to a question about SolarCity’s weakened finances. “This is the state-of-the-art plant in building solar panels, so I am confident we are where we need to be and in the right place in the market in the evolution of the market.”
The 1.2 million-square-foot factory, built and owned by the state, is nearing completion, with mostly finishing work needing to be done before SolarCity takes control of the plant on Sept. 16. The company plans to start installing equipment in the factory during the fourth quarter, with production expected to begin by the end of June, said Steve James, the senior vice president of operations for SolarCity’s solar panel manufacturing business.
Cuomo, speaking with reporters in the vast and largely empty factory on South Park Avenue, said the facility’s completion is a milestone in the state’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative and a key point in the Buffalo Niagara region’s shift from the Old Economy to the New Economy.
“This is the economy of tomorrow,” Cuomo said, noting that the factory is located on the site of the former Republic Steel plant. “It’s such a metaphor – a symbol of everything we’re doing.”
“I am just blown away by this facility,” Cuomo said. “When you see it, you are just blown away by the reality of it.”
Howard Zemsky, the president of Empire State Development, downplayed concerns about SolarCity’s slowing growth and rising borrowing costs.
“I think discussion of things like insolvency are off the mark,” Zemsky said.
“I don’t believe that there’s really a discussion about insolvency,” said Zemsky, noting that electric vehicle maker Tesla Motors has agreed to acquire SolarCity for $2.3 billion. “I think the potential merger with Tesla will strengthen SolarCity further. I think we have to be really careful not to create those concerns where they don’t necessarily exist.”
“This is the No. 1 market share company in the country in solar panels in one of the fastest growing industries in the world,” Zemsky said. “I think we start. We get up to 500 people and we keep going.”