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A Gigafactory Is Rising in Buffalo, And It May Change the Solar Energy Industry

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SolarCity's new plant, and the next-generation solar panels it produces, could become a catalyst for clean energy adoption

Tesla’s Gigafactory project, a superlative factory taking shape in the desert outside of Sparks, Nevada, is rightfully in the spotlight for being a pioneering investment in a clean energy future. But, the futuristic battery plant isn’t the only green manufacturing hub taking shape in the country. In Buffalo, New York, a new solar panel manufacturing facility under construction on the site of an old steel mill seeks to become a catalyst for the Rust Belt city’s economy. And, when it starts operation next summer, the SolarCity Gigafactory will eventually manufacture a gigawatt’s worth of next-generation solar panels every year—just shy of Doc Brown DeLorean levels, and a significant addition to the national energy supply—helping to further develop domestic sources of clean power.

One of the country’s largest solar panel manufacturers, SolarCity, which counts Elon Musk as a chairman, recently acquired a smaller solar company, Silveo, which had developed an advanced solar manufacturing process. The gain in efficiency from this process means lower energy prices—$2.50 per watt by 2017, the company estimates, almost half of what it cost using SolarCity products in 2012. In order to capitalize on the new technology, SolarCity decided to significantly expand its manufacturing capacity and, after discovering the massive tax breaks and subsidies available in New York via the Buffalo Billion redevelopment fund (the state is paying $350 million for the factory and footing $400 million for equipment, in exchange for what it expects to be thousands of jobs), it chose to break ground at the city’s RiverBend site, a shuttered former manufacturing hub on the Buffalo River.

Designing a building to meet SolarCity’s ambitious growth plans required working on a different scale, and organizing a team of more than 400 workers. The projects architects, Albany-based EYP Architecture & Design, had to manage a building that was more than 1.3 million square feet in size, a footprint large enough to fit 23 acres under a single roof. The floorplan also needed to accommodate the different phases of solar panel manufacturing, which require a section with laboratory-like environmental standards to work with silicon and fashion the panels, as well as assembly areas that see a rapid turnover of materials. The design team created a circulation path throughout the massive site, a means to speed workers and materials across a factory floor that’s expected to churn out roughly 10,000 panels per day when operating at full capacity, along with a glass corridor that brought light onto the oversized factory.

With a relatively quick deadline for construction, the architects instituted a collaborative process with contractors, industrial engineers and SUNY Polytechnic, a state university, partner, and overseer of the redevelopment project, to collaborate on construction and design in real time. After redesigning the site in the early weeks in early 2015, crews begin driving piles and starting construction in February.

"With a 23-acre site, you could have teams on site that don’t see each other," says Ken Drake, architect and senior project lead with EYP," and we were in a hyper fast-track delivery process, with a design that required a careful layout process, especially the shell of the building. But having everyone around the same table made it a lot faster."

And, of course, there was the matter of the site. Formerly the home of dozens of building that made up the Republic Steel factory, the brownfield site offered numerous challenges. According to Frank Lancaster, an architect and structural engineer at EYP. when the steel plant shut down in 1984, they literally bulldozed the structures, pushed the rubble into the basements, and covered it with dirt (old vehicles and steel ingots were discovered underground when the SolarCity team started digging on site).

It becomes quickly apparent, looking at photos of the in-progress SolarCity facility, that it’s missing a pretty massive plug by not including its own product on the roof. That decision was by design, but not because it doesn’t believe in its own product. Buffalo isn’t a bastion of solar power generation, but more importantly, it’s normally buffeted by massive snowstorms, meaning the roof often gets blanketed in the winter.

"Can you imagine a 23 acre roof with seven feet of snow?" says Lancaster. "We had to calculate the amount of times the panels would be covered with snow, and went with ground-mounted."

However, this being a solar panel facility, EYP found a way to include solar panels in the plant’s layout. While snow on the roof is a problem, it’s an even bigger issue for the parking lot. To help snow removal, and direct meltwater, EYP designed a system of trenches called bioswales, which help filter and direct runoff. These depressions in the landscape were the perfect places to erect poles to support large solar displays, which lift the panels above the ground, which can accumulate seven or more feet of snow during a series of severe snowstorms.

The site topped out last fall, and after delays in construction and tool installation, SolarCity is enclosed and installing equipment, with tentatively plans to ramp up production during the later half of 2017. As the company fine-tunes the manufacturing process, it hopes that its new generation of solar technology can achieve levels of efficiency rarely seen in the residential power market, made for simpler installation and more affordability. While Buffalo may never be blessed with extraordinary sunshine, its new manufacturing hub may be a leading player in the widespread adoption of solar power.