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Editorial: Tesla advances raise expectations for RiverBend factory

It’s starting to get real. Panasonic expects to have workers on the job at RiverBend before August is done and Tesla says it will be manufacturing solar panels there by the end of the year. It’s been a while in coming, but Western New York’s premier connection to 21st century manufacturing is about to come on line.

It’s also a relief. There never was much serious doubt that the plant would open, but economic forces have buffeted the solar power industry since 2013, when Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo announced the project as part of his Buffalo Billion initiative to restart the Western New York economy. The announcement that the plant will soon come to life is reassuring.

Indirectly, it is also heartening that production is ramping up on the Model 3 electric vehicle, the newest product in Tesla’s automotive line. Tesla CEO Elon Musk showed off the first 30 of the model, which has a base price of $35,000, late last month.

Musk says he has reservations for hundreds of thousands of the cars, which will require a mind-boggling expansion of production at his auto factory that Musk says he can accomplish.

Whatever makes Tesla stronger can only benefit the solar panel manufacturing work that is about to launch in South Buffalo. If the automotive operation succeeds, it can help Tesla withstand whatever challenges it may encounter as the still-developing industry of solar power finds its rhythm.
The plant, built by the state in a crook of the Buffalo River, will be the largest solar panel manufacturing plant in the Western Hemisphere. It will be operated by SolarCity, which Tesla acquired in November.

It has been a progression. At first, the plant was to be operated by Silevo, but then SolarCity bought that company. Then came the Tesla connection and the partnership with Panasonic. Each juncture produced questions about the project but, in the end, seems mainly to have secured it.

Now, things are shifting into a higher gear. Tesla has begun making solar roofs at its pilot production plant in Fremont, Calif. According to Musk, production will shift to Buffalo by the end of December. That’s a few months later than the late summer forecast previously offered, but hardly surprising in an undertaking as complex as this.

Regardless, Musk says he expects production of the solar roofs to start slowly here, but rapidly pick up speed. “We expect the Buffalo plant to be a powerhouse of solar panel production,” he said.

And the plant is built to last. It was designed to include a research and development component that will help the operation lead the way in the development of renewable power. Obsolescence is not in its future.

No one should be surprised if other bumps appear in the road. This is business, not magic. But, soon, business will produce jobs and workers will produce solar panels that are the future, as Americans and people around the world make efforts to save money and temper the forces of climate change.

All in all, that makes August a pivotal month in the history of Buffalo. The city has endured a lot in coming to this moment. Whatever mistakes were made in the past – and there were many – Buffalo is about to arrive at a very good place.

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