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Meet California's New Solar Capital: Buffalo, New York

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Downtown Buffalo | Photo: Joseph A./Flickr/Creative Commons License

SolarCity, the Menlo Park-based solar panel leasing company best known as the company Elon Musk owns that isn't SpaceX or Tesla Motors, announced Tuesday that it's buying Fremont-based solar panel manufacturer Silevo, and that the acquisition will lead to building one of the world's largest solar panel factories in Buffalo, New York.

In a blog post published Tuesday, Musk and SolarCity's cofounders Peter and Lyndon Rive said that the company is in negotiations with the state of New York to build a solar panel manufacturing center large enough to build more than a gigawatt's worth of solar panels every year.

The panels built at the facility would use Silevo's proprietary Triex photovoltaic technology, which Musk and the Rives brothers say offers high energy output at low cost. And putting the facility in snowy, economically depressed Buffalo is a stroke of genius.

The American solar panel manufacturing sector has spent the last couple of years reeling, as plummeting solar panel prices have essentially taken away what little potential profit margin domestic manufacturers could count on. 

But that may not be as insurmountable a problem for SolarCity, which at least theoretically will have a guaranteed buyer for the solar panels its Buffalo factory will produce: namely, SolarCity itself, for use in its residential and commercial solar leasing programs. If Silevo's technology lives up to its promise, which includes efficiencies of between 18 and 22 percent at a much broader range of temperatures, that will cut costs per watt of solar panel even further.

And then there's the choice of plant site. When I moved away from Buffalo in 1982 the region's economy was showing signs of collapse, with automotive industry factories closing up shop and moving to pre-NAFTA Mexico. In the 32 years since the economy has gotten worse. The city's population has declined steadily and vacant lots sprout where tidily kept homes once sat. Despite the best efforts of local boosters and a few promising developments in the health care and tech fields, Buffalo is crying out for investment and jobs.

That shows in real estate prices and other aspects of the region's cost of living, which runs about 30 percent lower than in Los Angeles. That means lower costs for building the factory itself. It also means that a solar plant worker bringing in $50,000 will have a much better standard of living in Buffalo than in most places in California, as long as he or she doesn't mind three inches of slush in the streets in April.

And all that, along with SolarCity's deep pockets and its management's tolerance for long-term returns, translates to a better financial outlook for the factory. And if their gamble pays off, Musk and the Rives say that their future plans include even larger factories to churn out new panels for homes' and businesses' roofs.

Just another way that rooftop solar can mean better standards of living for everyone involved, from the people under the roof to the people who make the panels.

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