$485M for Musk’s & SolarCity’s robotic solar module manufacturing facility approved (again)


The State of New York has approved a continuation of $485M in funding to build out SolarCity’s Gigafactory – capable of producing 10,000 modules a day. A few weeks ago, we saw the cash disbursements stopped for further review of key individuals associated with construction. These funds are needed to pay for and install the hardware inside the building to manufacture the solar modules as the majority of building construction is complete. The controversy is surrounding lobbyists and construction companies figuring out how to get a piece of a The Buffalo Billion – but really, I’m more interested in what might go on inside the largest solar manufacturing plant in North America and one of the biggest in the world.

If you’re considering solar, get a quote from multiple contractors at understandsolar.com. If you want feedback on the quote you get – either email me at john @ 9to5mac dot com or send a tweet.

The Buffalo Billion funding was put on hold likely a result of an investigation opened by the U.S. Attorney for the Southern District in September of 2015, and commented on by the Attorney General of New York:

“The U.S. Attorney for the Southern District has an ongoing investigation focused in Upstate New York (commonly referred to as the Buffalo Billion and Nano investigation). This investigation has recently raised questions of improper lobbying and undisclosed conflicts of interest by some individuals which may have deceived state employees involved in the respective programs and may have defrauded the state.”

Kady Cooper, a spokesperson for SolarCity, said SolarCity “is not the subject or focus of the investigation, as we were not involved in the vendor selection or contracting process.”

Nothing of what I have read makes me think otherwise. In my opinion – the only SolarCity story here is how it affects the roll out of one of the most advanced solar module manufacturing facilities on the planet.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4jEz03Z8azc]

Just a reminder that we’re talking about a guy that landed a rocket in the ocean on a barge

First off, SolarCity is part of the technological empire of Elon Musk – you might have heard of him. Elon has starred in other motion picture successes as PayPal, Tesla and SpaceX. And in each of these places, Musk has made significant changes to the industry. PayPal was among the first tools to allow a new way to transfer money, Tesla has made the electric car a viable option without compromise and SpaceX is really the first modern rocket company making revolutionary advances instead of incremental ones. This happens when the CEO sleeps on the factory floor.

A pattern that I see in Musk’s companies is the use of existing tools and applying them to their greatest potential. Of course, before Tesla, lithium ion batteries existed – and so did sexy cars, however, no one had yet tied the two together in a way to grab the public’s mind. Think about how cool the fellow in the following video is – a robot snake that will figure out how to plug itself into your Tesla and charge it. Nothing magical – just great implementation. How many people love showing off factory upgrades? Who else has a half a million views on making a car with robots?

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uMM0lRfX6YI]

Recently, Elon Musk said something magical about factories:

“We realized that the true problem, the true difficulty, and where the greatest potential is – is building the machine that makes the machine. In other words, it’s building the factory. I’m really thinking of the factory like a product.”

This statement – in one way or another – has been said since Henry Ford pushed cars down an assembly line for the first time. For Musk this matters doubly so as he already needs to expand Tesla’s Gigafactory, while also knowing SolarCity uses more modules than their new factory can build.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E8-oZSUrHXA]

The above video is of solar module manufacturer Tamesol – make note that you rarely see a human, and when you do they are doing quality control spot checking. Another manufacturer, JA Solar recently put out a press release where they focus on the automation of the facility;

All the stringers installed in this facility are equipped with artificial intelligence capable of switching soldering configurations between four busbars and five busbars of cell contact patterns. All the assembly lines also have the flexibility of either making regular modules or making double-glass modules with the easiness of converting between them back and forth.

The solar industry depends on robotic module manufacturing to compete.

We see this robotic reality coming to life in Buffalo. Already, the job situation at the new factory has evolved before the factory was even complete! SolarCity initially pledged at least 1,460 jobs at the new facility, however, now that the factory design is coming out it seems only 500 jobs on the floor of the factory will be needed. The reason is “Automation.” Fewer people touching hardware and “more hires can be directed toward research and development, as well as sales, installation, facilities, and management positions. Jobs which pay on average two to three times the two-year degree manufacturing jobs,” according to David Doyle, spokesman for SUNY Polytechnic Institute that has been hired by the state to manage the project.

One example of these new positions:

SolarCity is looking for a Director of Engineering who will lead a team of process, equipment and manufacturing engineers in the ramp of our new Riverbend Wafer Fab in Buffalo, NY, which will produce PV cells and assemble cells into panels. Guide and mentor the process engineers to fine-tune/optimize existing process associated with POR cell process.

Senior Vice President of Operations Steve James recently said, SolarCity will use the most advanced solar manufacturing equipment designed specifically for the plant’s needs:

“One of the reasons we can do this in North America as opposed to Asia is that we can be cost-competitive because of our equipment knowledge and we can design the plant in such a way that it can be very, very efficient,”

In the USA more people work in Solar Power than Gas or Coal extraction, and according to the Solar Jobs Census about 15% of those people are in manufacturing. Musk is definitely seeing to it that the manufacturing number will get smaller while the installer, salesperson, R&D and analyst folks keep growing.

In the Tesla Gigafactory we expect the price of batteries to fall 30-50% simply because Musk moved the manufacturing process under one roof. Recently, Fred Lambert asked: Will human hands ever touch Tesla Gigafactory battery cells? This question is a lot bigger than we realize just yet because we have not come close to seeing the scale that the energy storage/solar power industry must move toward.


SolarCity’s Buffalo factory likely will hit full production in the summer of 2017 – somewhere between three to six months later than the initial timetable. SolarCity CEO Lyndon Rive said it will take longer than expected to order and receive some of the sophisticated equipment that will be used to produce solar panels at the South Park Avenue factory.

I think I can wait an extra three to six months…

Images: Silevo production facility via SolarCity

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