Solar media flub

News of Silevo’s decision to build new solar factory in Buffalo met with deafening silence in the trades

solar manufacturing

Aside from a handful of notable exceptions, there is little solar cell and module manufacturing going on in the United States. One would think that the renewable trade press and clean-energy beat reporters in the general media would jump on any story about a major new production facility in the works. Yet after the announcement about Silevo’s decision to build a state-of-the art PV factory on the site of the old Republic Steel mill in south Buffalo came out late last week (fellow Fremont, CA, startup, LED lighting firm Soraa, will also locate its manufacturing facility there), the silence from the green-media cognoscenti has been deafening. Few if any of the usual suspects—including the Curator (until now)–picked up the news.

I had been aware that the news about Silevo’s site selection choice was imminent, based on my conversation with the company’s Aaron Thurlow at Solar Power International in Chicago, which I wrote about in one of my post-show blogs. “The high-efficiency crystalline-silicon upstart’s VP of global sales and marketing told me that a production facility–with an initial cell-making capacity of 200MW–will begin ramping in 2014,” I noted then. “Although he would not tell me the precise site of the new fab, it will be located somewhere in the northeastern U.S. The factory will ultimately be expandable to 1GW. An as-yet-to-be-determined amount of PV module production will take place there as well.”

The Buffalo News was all over the story, with multiple features, profiles, and blogs providing lots of details and local reaction, some of which can be found here. Associated Press covered it—via a piece syndicated at the SFGate site and elsewhere—and described an ambitious private-public plan to invest about $1.7 billion in the “Buffalo High-Tech Manufacturing Innovation Hub at RiverBend.” The state of New York will pony up $225 million and own the facilities at the new tech cluster, with the two companies (which will be the first tenants) coming up with the rest of the sum.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo broke the news at a packed event, where he was joined by the always colorful Alain Kaloyeros, chief exec of the SUNY College of Nanoscale Science and Engineering (which will be working with the firms). The two were effusive in their comments.

“It’s probably the most exciting economic development announcement that we’ve had statewide since I’ve been governor,” Cuomo said. “This project, I believe, is a game-changer for Western New York.” Kaloyeros quipped: “Folks, this is real. This is like the Yankees coming to Buffalo. This is like Buffalo winning the Super Bowl.” (Note to Alain: Be careful when using a Super Bowl analogy with long-time—and long-suffering—Bills fans. Two words: Scott Norwood.)

Silevo’s CEO Zheng Xu told the Buffalo News that “the company picked the Buffalo site despite being courted by four other states that offered ‘very competitive incentives.’ Xu said the benefits of the clean energy hub, combined with the pool of engineering talent produced at Western New York universities and the region’s low-cost electricity, helped sway the company, which expects to produce its solar panels here just as cheaply as it can make them in China. Silevo, which has about 40 employees at a California office that will remain open, hopes to eventually hire 475 people to work at its RiverBend factory, which is expected to be ready to begin production in early 2015,” the story continued.

Shortly after last Thursday (Nov. 21) morning’s announcement, Kaloyeros told the paper that “it was apparent companies in the green energy industry already are taking notice: He received an email from the CEO of an unidentified company that previously spurned the state’s entreaties. Now, the executive was asking to meet with Cuomo and talk about the green-energy opportunities at the Buffalo hub.”

As guardedly encouraged as the Curator is by Silevo’s “Made in the USA” move, I am a bit discouraged that my media brothers and sisters covering the solar and renewables beat blew the coverage on such an important story.