A rendering of the SolarCity factory in Buffalo, N.Y.
As the factory rises, a promised 5, 000 jobs are just beginning to materialize. But it's not just a bet on Buffalo. How far the solar panel plant can go will also determine how well the domestic solar manufacturing industry can reclaim share after much of it was unable to survive the first half of this decade in a market roiled by steep price cuts and a trade war against Chinese solar panel makers.
SolarCity, like many of the rooftop solar installers, grew its business for years by using cost-effective panels, including those made in Asia. The Buffalo plant is set to open next year and will employ at least 1, 900 people once operating at full capacity in 2017.
"You have a brownfield that has had no meaningful activity for years and you put in 3, 000 jobs, not counting [its impact on] the local dry cleaner and mini-mart owner, " said Peter Cutler, director of communications and special projects at Empire State Development in Buffalo.
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Roughly 1, 400 people are expected to work for suppliers, and another 2, 000 supplier jobs are estimated to be generated in the rest of New York, said Alain Kaloyeros, president of the State University of New York Polytechnic Institute, who led the New York side of negotiations for the SolarCity incentive package.
"For [local] manufacturing, this is a gain of more than 5 percent, and Buffalo still has an outsized concentration of jobs in manufacturing, '' said Adam Kamins, a regional economist at Moody's Analytics. "To boost that with a modern industry is significant. If Buffalo can become a leader, which it's positioned to do, an investment like this can pay off.''
Richard Cummins | Getty Images
Buffalo, New York
About 400 construction workers are building the plant now, a total expected to approach 1, 500 late this year as the interior gets built out, said Frank Ciminelli, senior executive vice president of construction firm LPCiminelli, which is building it.
"Something a tenth of this size would be noteworthy, " Ciminelli said. "For a city whose psyche has been battered for as long as I've been alive, the site of multiple cranes on the skyline changes people's perspective. Even before it's been realized, it has changed the psyche of the city.''
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