Story by David Robinson of the Buffalo News: Click here to view on buffalonews.com.
The shell of the sprawling SolarCity factory is mostly up.
And now, the sprint to finish the solar panel factory will begin in a rush.
A big rush.
While the workforce at the solar panel factory has hovered around 450 for much of the summer, the workforce at the site is expected to nearly triple in the coming months as work on the building’s mechanical and electrical systems gets underway.
Once the ramp-up is complete, between 1,200 and 1,500 workers will be working at the site, almost as many as the 1,460 factory workers who are expected to have jobs at the SolarCity plant once it hits full production sometime in 2017.
“The troops are amassed at the border,” said Frank L. Ciminelli II, the senior executive vice president at LPCiminelli, the project manager. “They’re just waiting for somebody to tell them to go.”
With the mechanical work now getting underway, the construction of the SolarCity factory is moving into its most hectic phase, with workers completing work on the building’s exterior even as activity ramps up inside.
It’s part of a multiphase construction plan that the project’s backers – SolarCity, LPCiminelli and New York State – have followed to meet the solar energy systems installer’s aggressive timeline to begin reduced-volume production at the factory during the early months of next year.
The construction of the SolarCity factory has followed a rolling schedule as work on the site has progressed. As crews drilling the steel pilings used to anchor the factory’s foundation to the bedrock beneath the site completed one portion of their work, other workers followed in their footsteps, pouring concrete, erecting structural steel and then enclosing the building, even as other portions of the site were still in the earlier stages of the process.
That system allowed construction to proceed at a faster pace and has helped the work remain on pace to enclose the shell of the building this fall and complete enough of the interior work that SolarCity can begin installing equipment later this year and early next year.
10,000 panels a day
The $900 million SolarCity factory is the centerpiece of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s Buffalo Billion economic development initiative. The plant is scheduled to begin making solar panels early next year, with production ramping up throughout 2016 and early 2017. At its peak, the plant is expected to be producing 10,000 solar panels a day, or enough panels to have the capacity to generate 1 gigawatt of electricity annually.
SolarCity, the nation’s largest residential solar energy installer, plans to use all of the panels produced at the Buffalo plant on the rooftop solar energy systems that it installs on homes.
The flurry of construction at major sites, such as SolarCity and the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus, as well as the Delaware North headquarters and hotel complex being built at 250 Delaware Ave. has turned 2015 into what Paul Brown, the president of the Buffalo Building Trades Council, sees as a good time to be a construction workers in Western New York.
The number of construction jobs in the Buffalo Niagara region topped 26,000 for the first time in at least 25 years during August and has jumped by 21 percent over the past two years as the building boomlet has taken hold.
“Construction is still going very strong,” said John Slenker, the state Labor Department’s regional economist in Buffalo.
Across the entire employment market, job growth is running at an annual pace of just under 2 percent through August – putting the region on a course for its most robust job growth in 25 years.
“It’s a good time to be entering the workforce and to be in the workforce,” said Richard Lipsitz, the president of the Western New York Area Labor Federation. “The jobs that are coming forward are high-end jobs.”
With the SolarCity and other Buffalo Billion-funded projects featuring project labor agreements that mandate the use of unionized labor, demand has been strong for construction workers who belong to organized labor.
“We’ve never had a shortage of workers ever,” Brown said. “We should have no problem at all meeting the demand.”
About 97 percent of all the contracts for construction work on the SolarCity projects have gone to firms that are based within a 75-mile radius of Buffalo, said Kevin Schuler, an LPCiminelli vice president.
That demand for unionized construction workers is expected to remain high into next year. As construction work on the SolarCity project winds down, activity will ramp up on other big projects, including the $375 million University at Buffalo medical school and the $275 million John R. Oishei Children’s Hospital, both located on the Buffalo Niagara Medical Campus.
“We will empty the union halls,” Ciminelli said.
Demand is so strong for some skills that already are in short supply, such as welders, that contractors have had to look outside Western New York to bring in workers to fill some labor needs, he said.
“If it was just RiverBend, we’d be OK,” Ciminelli said.
While Brown doesn’t see a shortage of unionized trade workers, he said recruiting new apprentices remains challenging, even with the improved job prospects over the past year.
“That is one of the toughest things, getting people interested in the trades,” Brown said. “We still have this, ‘I have to go to college’ mentality. It’s tough to change.”
Unions typically increase their membership by recruiting workers to join apprenticeship programs, often spanning two to four years, where new members learn their trade.
“We recruit for six months and we’re lucky if we get 35 people to apply,” Brown said. “It’s a tough grind. But when you come out of an apprenticeship program, you know what you’re doing.”