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Work has begun at the RiverBend site in South Buffalo, where one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories – a keystone in Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion initiative – will be built.

The project’s developer, Buffalo-based contractor LPCiminelli, has been on site doing environmental studies and early-stage testing, as well as some technical work to better understand the property’s geology.

Workers from National Grid are not yet on site, but they have been doing extensive planning about bringing electric service to the 88-acre site and the power-hungry principal tenant.

Work is expected to accelerate within weeks, after a City of Buffalo agency closes on the sale of the RiverBend property to the state. That closing could occur next week, sources familiar with the deal said, clearing the way for the state to begin its work.

Since the mid-June announcement that SolarCity was acquiring solar panel maker Silevo, the state has had serious discussions with company executives about the project, Cuomo has said. Silevo had planned to occupy most of the first 275,000-square-foot building in the complex, but SolarCity now says it wants the Buffalo factory to have five times the capacity that Silevo had envisioned. So plans for the site are being revised.

SolarCity’s plan would boost the factory’s proposed annual capacity from being able to make enough solar panels to produce 200 megawatts of electricity a year to 1 gigawatt, or 1,000 megawatts.

SolarCity is the nation’s busiest solar panel installation company, and it plans to become its largest panel manufacturer, as well.

With the expansion, the Buffalo factory now is expected to provide well over 1,000 jobs, rather than the 475 initially forecast. Another California-based company, LED manufacturer Soraa, also is slated to move into the RiverBend complex.

Some delays

Closing the land transaction has taken much longer than city and state officials expected. When city and state officials reached an agreement in early May on the $2.5 million deal to sell the site for the RiverBend clean energy and technology hub to the state, city officials expected the sale to be completed by the end of May.

But that date came and went, largely because of the complex nature of the deal, which involves an environmentally contaminated site once home to the sprawling Republic Steel plant.

Some of the delay centered around the creation of a property owners association, structured much like the homeowners association in a condominium complex, that would oversee the costs involved with future environmental monitoring and operations at the site, as well as normal property maintenance work there, such as snow removal and landscaping.

Those duties have been handled by the Buffalo Urban Development Corp. since the city acquired the Republic Steel site in 2008, and have cost the development agency an average of $100,000 a year ever since.

Under the property owners association that will be formed, the state agency that is purchasing the property, Fort Schuyler Management Corp., will contribute $50,000 a year toward the operating and maintenance expenses that will be the responsibility of the new association, with the urban development agency responsible for the rest.

It wasn’t until this month that the state Attorney General’s Office gave its required approval to the property owners association, clearing the last major hurdle for the deal to close.

Attorneys from the city and the state now are hammering out last-minute details, and the two sides are expected to be able to close the sale sometime next week.

Power and cleanup

As part of the original development, the state expected to spend nearly $60 million on infrastructure and site improvements, with almost half – $28.5 million – going toward the installation of utilities at the site.

“We’ve been doing behind the scenes work for some time,” said Stephen F. Brady, a National Grid spokesman. “There is a great deal of engineering and design work that gets done, long before field work gets started.”

“We are gathering data on what the demands for our service will be, and we will design our system so that we can meet those demands efficiently and reliably,” Brady said. ”We will be looking at this as an opportunity to make sure the site has 21st Century energy systems.”

State officials also identified additional preconstruction work, ranging from $6.7 million in site remediation work at the brownfield site to $9.2 million on site preparation.

An additional $10.5 million was expected to go toward construction of roads, parking, drainage and site lighting.

Landscaping, pedestrian trails and other final-stage site work are expected to cost $5 million.

email: drobinson@buffnews.com