SolarCity has some ’splaining to do, to quote Ricky Ricardo.
For starters, company executives—and state officials, for that matter—can explain why the $750 million solar panel manufacturing plant taxpayers are building for them is going to employ only 500, not the 1,460 originally promised.
This scaled-back commitment, reported Friday by Investigative Post and WGRZ, came as news to a lot of people.
Mayor Byron Brown told Dave McKinley of WGRZ on Friday that the reduced goal was news to him.
Assemblyman Sean Ryan went one better, telling the station’s Michael Wooten that SolarCity officials assured him just the other day that the plant would employ the full contingent of workers originally promised.
The reduced commitment must also have been news to David Robinson of the Buffalo News, the paper’s primary reporter covering the Buffalo Billion, considering that his SolarCity story in last week’s paper said:
The 1.2 million-square-foot factory that the state is building and outfitting for SolarCity will be the biggest in the Western Hemisphere, and if everything goes as planned, one of the region’s biggest employers, with 1,460 jobs at the factory and another 1,440 at its suppliers and service providers.
SolarCity began spinning the plant downsizing Friday in an interview I conducted in the course of reporting the story and went into high gear in comments the next day to the News.
I asked Kady Cooper, director of communications for SolarCity, why the reduced workforce at the plant? Her initial response was “I don’t know.” Within a couple of hours, automation was cited.
She noted that SolarCity is still committed to creating 1,460 jobs in Buffalo, even if only 500 of them will be at the factory. I asked her what other jobs would be coming our way.
“Undefined,” she replied. Possibilities includes sales, service and support, she added.
By the next day, SolarCity had miraculously figured it out, telling the News:
“We’ll augment those manufacturing jobs with head count in sales, project development and other functions…These will be very, very technical hires at a higher level and at higher pay.”
Cooper told the News:
“It’s better for the region as it allows us to create a wider range of jobs that will be appropriate for a broader range of potential applicants.”
For good measure, a state spokesman told the News:
“The remaining 1,460 jobs will be with more R&D, management, and business jobs which pay on average two to three times the two-year degree manufacturing jobs.”
You might remember the spokesman, David Doyle, who flaks for Alain Kaloyeros, the Buffalo Billion architect now under federal investigation. Doyle was quoted in a News story in December 2014 offering assurances that the selection of LPCiminelli to develop the SolarCity project was done on the up and up. The story was based on a report Kaloyeros and Company had manufactured in anticipation of my investigation that exposed the shenanigans involving Ciminelli’s selection and the state’s extensive efforts to suppress documents related to the process.
US Attorney Preet Bharara presumably read all the stories and paperwork and took it from there.
But I digress.
While reporting the story Friday with my colleague Charlotte Keith, I asked Cooper what SolarCity would do with all the space in the factory and and only one-third the workforce. Cooper told me they’d figure it out. Perhaps suppliers would take some of the space, she said. Ditto for the aforementioned sales, service, and support employees.
The next day she assured the News that SolarCity needed the entire 1.2 million square feet—the equivalent of 30 Walmarts—for plant operations, despite the reduced manpower.
“People take up the least amount of space. We haven’t changed our space requirements, our production capacity, or the yield.”
So there you have it, folks. You’re dropping $750 million to build and equip a plant for a company that now says it needs one-third as many workers to staff it. And somehow this is a good thing.
Now if it really was a good thing, SolarCity would have shared this news with, say, the mayor, or the state lawmakers who appropriated the money to build the plant. But the company didn’t.
Cooper explained to me that she felt SolarCity met its obligation by mentioning it in filings submitted with the Securities and Exchange Commission. You can find it, all one paragraph, on page 52 of its current quarterly report that goes on for several hundred pages.
This is SolarCity’s idea of transparency, which mirrors that of the Cuomo bureaucrats who are managing the project. They, too, have played “mum’s the word” in keeping with their consistent stonewalling of any information that might not reflect well on the project.
In fact, the role of state officials in soft-pedaling the changes they agreed to last fall is in some ways more outrageous than that of SolarCity. Heaven forbid that Cuomo, Kaloyeros and their minions actually be straight with the tax-paying public.
The Cuomo administration, for all its efforts, finds itself under siege as Bharara expands his corruption investigation. Meanwhile, SolarCity is taking hits left and right.
Just the other day, an industry analyst declared SolarCity’s “credibility is likely at an all-time low” in the face of yet another report of record losses.
The feds have had similar doubts for years, considering an ongoing Treasury investigation into allegations the company inflated solar panel installation costs to pocket stimulus money. Federal and state investigators in Oregon are looking into possible financial shenanigans involving SolarCity’s installation of solar panels
The headline of that story, published by The Oregonian, read: “Oregon’s signature solar energy project built on foundation of false hopes and falsehoods.”
Kinda has a familiar ring to it, doesn’t it?
Jim Heaney is editor and executive director of Investigative Post. He was an investigative reporter with the Buffalo News from 1986 to 2011 and a reporter and editor with the Orlando Sentinel from 1980 to 1986. Heaney has won more than 20 journalism awards and was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting.