Elon Musk is betting that his magic touch will work – even in Buffalo.
The billionaire loves to think big, and he’s shown an uncanny knack for coming up with ideas that take off like rockets. He made a fortune when he co-founded PayPal and sold it years later to eBay for $1.5 billion. He went on to start Tesla Motors, where he aims to bring electric cars to the mainstream market. And he started his own private rocket company, SpaceX.
It all has helped Musk build a fortune that Forbes magazine pegs at $9.2 billion.
Now, Musk is planning to work his magic in Buffalo, where SolarCity, the solar power system installer he helped conceive with his cousins, Lyndon and Peter Rive, intends to build one of the world’s biggest solar panel factories in the world.
It’s a bold plan, and because it’s Musk, it’s creating a national buzz about Buffalo.
“It’s super exciting,” said Dottie Gallagher-Cohen, the president of the Buffalo Niagara Partnership. “Elon Musk is betting on Buffalo.”
“Musk’s investment is big because he’s a national figure,” Gallagher-Cohen said. “It’s great from a regional marketing perspective.”
Buffalo Mayor Byron Brown feels the buzz, too. “Just to have someone like that, who is internationally known, in this marketplace is really great for Buffalo,” he said.
SolarCity’s planned investment in Buffalo, which it inherited and expanded last week when it agreed to acquire solar panel maker Silevo in a deal that could be worth as much as $350 million, immediately put Buffalo on the map within the solar power industry.
The factory’s mere size – it will be able to produce enough solar panels each year to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity – will make Buffalo a center for the solar power industry, with enough of activity that it should attract a cadre of suppliers and other businesses that serve the solar module factory.
Not to mention the “well over 1,000 jobs” that the company expects to create within a couple of years, when the factory is running at full steam.
“This is very high profile,” said Howard Zemsky, the co-chairman of the Western New York Regional Economic Development Council, in his typically understated fashion.
But there’s nothing understated about Musk. He built his fortune by thinking big.
At Tesla, Musk wants to build a massive plant, which he calls a “gigafactory,” that will make lithium-ion batteries on such a grand scale that it will make electric cars cheap enough that they can compete with vehicles that run on gasoline.
At SolarCity, the company is planning to build its own solar panels on such a grand scale that it makes solar power affordable to the masses without subsidies.
Notice the similarities?
For SolarCity, the move into solar panel manufacturing is a huge change. The company established itself as the nation’s biggest solar power system installer by offering rooftop solar power systems at no upfront cost to customers. SolarCity provides the financing for the solar power systems it installs for customers who then make monthly payments for decades.
“Leasing is a game changer,” said Shyam Mehta, a GTM Research analyst. “It unlocks a whole class of customer that could not otherwise have afforded solar.”
By branching out into manufacturing, SolarCity is taking on additional risk. There’s a glut of solar panels on the market, and that oversupply has helped push down the price of the solar modules that the company uses. The glut helped push the world’s largest solar panel supplier, Suntech Power, into liquidation last year.
But by acquiring Silevo, SolarCity is moving into the high-efficiency end of the market, with Silevo’s panels able to convert about 21 percent of the sun’s energy into electricity, compared with 17 percent to 18 percent for the less costly, conventional panels. Silevo’s emerging technology that allows its panels to capture reflected sunlight on its underside when mounted on the ground or on a tilt can boost its efficiency as high as 26 percent.
“We’re seeing high-volume production of relatively basic panels, but not high-volume production of advanced panels,” Musk said during a conference call last week.
But because it takes fewer high-efficiency panels to generate the same amount of electricity as one made with conventional modules, SolarCity also can save on installation costs, from labor to wiring and hardware. And by producing Silevo’s panels on a massive scale, Musk thinks SolarCity can squeeze out further cost savings.
“The path to ultimately having solar power be way cheaper than coal or fracked gas power is to combine the huge economies of scale with the most advanced technology,” he said.
The deal also is a hedge against the protective tariffs imposed on the Chinese solar panels that SolarCity now relies on. Those impending duties could increase the price of Chinese solar panels by an average of 14 percent, according to a report issued Thursday by GTM Research. That will only make the panels SolarCity produces in Buffalo more competitive.
SolarCity already sees a booming demand for its solar power systems, with installations of up to 1 gigabyte – the capacity of the Buffalo plant – expected in 2015.
“The demand grows exponentially as the price drops, and you can imagine that it really grows at an enormous pace if we’re able to compete with grid power electricity with no subsides,” Musk said.
And that would be a really big deal.