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Editorial: Tesla's solar operation has Buffalo still waiting for the promised jobs

We worry about Tesla and its Buffalo solar business.

Tesla’s survival depends on its new Model 3 electric automobile succeeding. The Model 3 is off to a rocky start, so Tesla has put its solar business on life support to focus cash and attention on the Model 3. Put in the same bind, most business people would make the same decision.

But the clock is ticking on Tesla’s commitment to create 1,460 jobs in Buffalo by April 2020. That was part of the deal for the state spending $750 million to build and equip the plant. If the goal isn’t met, Tesla could face a penalty of as much as $41.2 million for every year it falls short.

The company recently announced a reduction of about 7 percent of its national workforce, or more than 3,000 people. The Buffalo Tesla solar factory employs 800, about evenly split between Tesla and Panasonic, which is manufacturing components for Tesla. It is estimated that fewer than 50 jobs will be lost in Buffalo, but it makes reaching the goal of an 80 percent larger workforce in just 14 months a steeper climb.

Meanwhile, Tesla’s share of the solar business continues to shrink. In the third quarter of 2018, Tesla installed 73 megawatts of solar energy generation capacity — its lowest figure in at least five years.

Tesla is betting its solar business will spring back to life with its innovative solar roof, which looks like conventional roofing but has solar cells inside. The roof is pricey — it costs about twice as much as a conventional solar — but Tesla believes it will revolutionize the market for home solar.

Tesla says the solar roof will be in production by the end of the year, but it is hard to put much stock in those forecasts. There have been many months of delays, postponements and recalibrations since Tesla’s 2016 purchase of SolarCity, which was founded by two cousins of Tesla chief executive Elon Musk.

Startups involve risk, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and Empire State Development knew when they placed a $750 million bet on the RiverBend factory. It takes a strong stomach to deal with the ups and downs of new markets and new industries. It has been a century since Buffalo has been on the cutting edge of anything this big.

Here’s hoping the risk soon gives way to a bright reality.

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