In the fall of 2013, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo pledged $225 million in funding for a new solar panel manufacturing facility in Buffalo. At the time, clean energy companies Soraa and Silveo anchored the project, which was expected to bring hundreds of new manufacturing jobs to the area. SolarCity, one of the country’s largest solar manufacturers and installers, then purchased Silveo and in 2014 sought to expand the project, promising a larger corporate investment over time and thousands of new jobs.
Nearly one year after Gov. Cuomo’s original investment, he announced that the state would increase its investment in the solar plant to $750 million as part of the Buffalo Billion program. Ostensibly, his goal was to secure SolarCity’s commitment to spend $5 billion over the next decade to create 2900 jobs in Buffalo and more around the state, and build, operate, and maintain the massive 1.2 million square foot solar manufacturing facility. Several questions have been raised about the increase in taxpayer subsidies that SolarCity has received as part of this project. The U.S. Attorney’s Office is also investigating alleged improprieties around unjust contracting, fraud, and improperly issues government subsidies.
But the SolarCity facility is facing even more controversy now that two-and-a-half years later, not only is the solar plant still under construction and inoperable, but the company has dramatically cut its plant projections from 1,460 manufacturing jobs to just 500.
Jim Heaney at Investigative Post noted that the “deal was changed last fall in fine print that was never publicized,” and results in only one-third the original jobs planned for the facility actually coming to Buffalo. While he said SolarCity claims it’s committed to keeping the 1,460 jobs in Buffalo, the company has not disclosed what those jobs would be for, although they will no longer be plant manufacturing positions. Given the reduced job projections, the state has essentially invested $1.5 million per each factory job, Heaney said.
Prior to this latest reduction in jobs, protestors called out SolarCity for its failure to put the needs of local residents at the top of its priority list. During a rally organized by NY State Legislator Jean Grant and other African American leaders and community advocates outside the still in construction SolarCity plant, one woman declared “Buffalo is a tale of two cities – a city in renaissance, and at the same time, one of extreme poverty and decay; a city of inclusion and exclusion…[Buffalo is] a city that views the reduction of 25% minority hiring objectives here at SolarCity to 15% as ‘just a cost of doing business’ and not the deprivation of jobs, which would translate into improved quality of life in a city where the unemployment rate for Black and Hispanic males is at 40% or higher.”
Time will tell what lies in store for the new SolarCity plant, but media and community leaders alike seem unsure about the benefits that are actually being created by this deal.