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Editorial: Despite Tesla's troubles, reason to hope

Tesla’s decision to broaden the range of products it manufactures in South Buffalo beyond solar panels should come as some small measure of relief for anyone concerned about the progress at the RiverBend factory. Among products to be made there are electrical components for its batteries and its electric vehicle charging stations.

Given the raised expectations often offered by the company’s CEO, Elon Musk, and the $750 million in taxpayer funds to build the factory, the public’s interest is significant. Western New Yorkers still want to see – and have reason to believe in - its role in the solar energy industry.

The company is less than a year away from a requirement that it double the size of its current work force. Otherwise, it will face a $41.2 million penalty from the state.

Looking at the state-required report one way, the outlook looks hopeful with the Buffalo factory. It shows 730 full-time employees at the end of April, divided between Tesla and its partner, Panasonic, which makes solar panels and modules in its portion of the facility. Forty-three more people work at the facility as contingent workers, contractors and vendors.

Tesla’s numbers fall slightly below Panasonic’s among the 730 employees. Tesla said it had 329 full-time workers, while Panasonic employed 401, according to the report.

The vision for the Buffalo factory looks like this: jobs ramping up and solar panels being affixed to homes throughout the country. That vision has been slow in materializing.

Give the company this much credit: It is looking for diversified products until its state-of-the-art solar roof panel is ready. It has started making electrical components for the latest version of its electrical vehicle Supercharger in Buffalo and, as has been reported in this newspaper, the first production line for the Supercharger cabinet is operational. Additional lines are scheduled to be installed later this year.

In addition, the company has added several production lines to support creating other electrical components that are used in its Powerwall and Powerpack batteries.

Jonathan Chang, the assistant secretary at Tesla’s Silevo subsidiary, in a letter to state officials said: “This expanded in diversified product manufacturing further brings the RiverBend facility into the full ecosystem of solar, energy storage, electrical vehicle and other Tesla product offerings.”

It sounds good. But as that long-ago famous Wendy’s commercial asked: “Where’s the beef?” Shareholders want to know, as Tesla recently started trading below $200 for the first time in more than two years.
The stock is struggling as of late, with a recent dive of nearly 10%, and down more on the year. “Some $23 billion in shareholder value has been wiped out,” Bloomberg News reported recently.

On Thursday, the company was dealt another blow, when a Barclays analyst said the company’s status may be relegated to a niche luxury carmaker.

Musk recently informed staff that despite a recent $2.7 billion fund-raising in markets, the company “risked running out of cash in 10 months without ‘hardcore’ cost cuts.” Add to that stress a fatality in a Tesla operating on Autopilot, part of the company’s autonomous driving effort.

None of that is good news and all of it matters to state taxpayers, who own a $750 million solar plant whose promise was to help change Buffalo’s economy, both with its solar products and the supply industries that were expected to take root in its light.

There’s no reason that still can’t happen. Solar energy is a growing industry, with a future tied to the needs of a warming planet. Buffalo has to hope that Tesla and Panasonic can pull it off here and that the decision to make other products at RiverBend is only a necessary bridge to that day.

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