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What to expect now that SolarCity has the keys to RiverBend

State officials are set to hand over the keys Friday to SolarCity for its new solar panel factory in South Buffalo.

With the solar energy company gaining access to the 1.2 million-square-foot factory, the Buffalo Billion’s signature economic development program will begin the shift from its construction phase to a period where SolarCity begins to get the plant ready to begin producing solar panels sometime during the spring.

[Gallery: Inside look at SolarCity]

Construction on the $900 million factory, which is being built and equipped by the state and will be leased to SolarCity for $1 a year for the next 10 years, has been underway for more than two years. The factory, which will house the biggest solar panel production facility in the Western Hemisphere, was completed on time and on budget, said Kevin Schuler, a spokesman for LPCiminelli, the project’s main contractor.

In all, the state is spending $750 million to build the factory and purchase the equipment that SolarCity will use to make its solar panels.

Although the handover is a significant milestone in the project’s development, a lot of work remains to be done. The factory, while largely completed, still needs finishing work, and the cavernous building is largely empty, much like a newly built house, without the equipment, furniture and people who will work there.

Here’s what to expect between now and when the first solar panels roll out of the plant, likely in June.

The outside of SolarCity at RiverBend in Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

The outside of SolarCity at RiverBend in Buffalo. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Fall 2016

While SolarCity taking control of the building signals the end of the construction phase, that doesn’t mean all of the construction work is done. Contractors are expected to remain at the site through the end of the year, wrapping up their work on the facility.

“It’s essentially ready,” said Steve James, the senior vice president of SolarCity’s solar panel manufacturing business.

“There are still going to be contractors on site. We’ll just sort of be co-existing,” James said. “We’ll be able to move into the office space. We’ll be able to start doing some initial work on the new equipment.”

“It’s in finishing touches,” James said “It’s like in a house. It kind of looks done when you’re at the end, but there’s a lot to do. There’s the painting and the trim and everything that takes a lot longer than you think it will.”

 

December 2016 to January 2017

As the finishing work wraps up at the factory, SolarCity plans to start moving in the solar panel production equipment.

About two-thirds of the equipment that will go into the plant already has been ordered, said Joseph Mendelson, SolarCity’s director of policy & electricity markets.

But the ultimate design and layout of the factory has been changing. SolarCity has been experimenting with various production designs and layouts at its pilot factory in Fremont, Calif., and the things that SolarCity’s engineers are learning there is shaping the way the Buffalo factory will operate, Mendelson said.

Those changes could lead to a significant increase in the capacity of the Buffalo factory, Peter Rive, SolarCity’s chief technology officer, said last month without disclosing how much output could rise. The factory’s stated capacity will allow it to produce about 9,000 to 10,000 panels a day, with a combined annual generating capacity of about 1,000 megawatts of electricity.

“It’s a combination of equipment changes and process changes,” James said. “This plant was designed two years ago. In the two years, our research and development folks have been working on making the equipment more efficient, making the processes more efficient. We’re trying to roll some of that into the factory so we give ourselves some room to grow.”

Miles of plumbing, valves and wires at the SolarCity plant at RiverBend in Buffalo on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Miles of plumbing, valves and wires at the SolarCity plant at RiverBend in Buffalo on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2016. (Robert Kirkham/Buffalo News)

Winter 2017

Once the new year begins, SolarCity expects to start hiring the first production workers for the plant.

The company, which currently has about 40 workers in Buffalo, expects to add about 150 production employees as it gears up to start production.

As the design of the factory has changed and SolarCity has been able to improve the efficiency of the equipment and its processes, the company has scaled back its estimate of how many production workers the factory will need. The company now says it will need a minimum of 500 factory workers, down from the company’s original forecast of almost 1,500.

“I believe we’re going to be significantly more than 500 by the time we ramp it, especially as we grow,” James said.

SolarCity still is pledging to create nearly 1,500 jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region, but now says most will be in non-production roles that still pay above-average wages.
“They’re definitely going to be higher-skill jobs,” Mendelson said.

 

June 2017

SolarCity this summer moved up its production timetable for the Buffalo factory, saying it expects to begin manufacturing on a limited scale by the end of June.

The initial production will involve about a quarter of the plant’s stated capacity – around 250 megawatts – and will be focused on a new solar roofing product that SolarCity is expected to unveil in the coming weeks.

The company has not said when it expects to reach full production.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com

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