Tesla so­lar on life sup­port

So­lar roof op­er­a­tion has Buf­falo still wait­ing for the promised jobs

The Buffalo News - - OPINION -

We worry about Tesla and its Buf­falo so­lar busi­ness. Tesla’s sur­vival de­pends on its new Model 3 elec­tric au­to­mo­bile suc­ceed­ing. The Model 3 is off to a rocky start, so Tesla has put its so­lar busi­ness on life sup­port to fo­cus cash and at­ten­tion on the Model 3. Put in the same bind, most busi­ness people would make the same de­ci­sion.

But the clock is tick­ing on Tesla’s com­mit­ment to cre­ate 1,460 jobs in Buf­falo by April 2020. That was part of the deal for the state spend­ing $750 mil­lion to build and equip the plant. If the goal isn’t met, Tesla could face a penalty of as much as $41.2 mil­lion for ev­ery year it falls short.

The com­pany re­cently an­nounced a re­duc­tion of about 7 per­cent of its na­tional work­force, or more than 3,000 people. The Buf­falo Tesla so­lar fac­tory em­ploys 800, about evenly split be­tween Tesla and Pana­sonic, which is man­u­fac­tur­ing com­po­nents for Tesla. It is es­ti­mated that fewer than 50 jobs will be lost in Buf­falo, but it makes reach­ing the goal of an 80 per­cent larger work­force in just 14 months a steeper climb.

Mean­while, Tesla’s share of the so­lar busi­ness con­tin­ues to shrink. In the third quar­ter of 2018, Tesla in­stalled 73 megawatts of so­lar en­ergy gen­er­a­tion ca­pac­ity – its low­est fig­ure in at least five years.

Tesla is bet­ting its so­lar busi­ness will spring back to life with its in­no­va­tive so­lar roof, which looks like con­ven­tional roof­ing but has so­lar cells in­side. The roof is pricey – it costs about twice as much as a con­ven­tional so­lar – but Tesla be­lieves it will rev­o­lu­tion­ize the mar­ket for home so­lar.

Tesla says the so­lar roof will be in pro­duc­tion by the end of the year, but it is hard to put much stock in those fore­casts. There have been many months of de­lays, post­pone­ments and re­cal­i­bra­tions since Tesla’s 2016 pur­chase of So­larCity, which was founded by two cousins of Tesla chief ex­ec­u­tive Elon Musk.

Star­tups in­volve risk, which Gov. An­drew M. Cuomo and Em­pire State De­vel­op­ment knew when they placed a $750 mil­lion bet on the River­Bend fac­tory. It takes a strong stom­ach to deal with the ups and downs of new mar­kets and new in­dus­tries. It has been a cen­tury since Buf­falo has been on the cut­ting edge of any­thing this big.

Here’s hop­ing the risk soon gives way to a bright re­al­ity.

Bloomberg News

Tesla CEO Elon Musk is bet­ting his com­pany’s so­lar busi­ness will spring back to life with its in­no­va­tive so­lar roof.

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