Buffalo is a city known for snow. It is not the first place one would think to build a solar panel factory. But the city will soon be the home of the largest such manufacturing facility in the Western Hemisphere, according to SolarCity, the San Mateo, Calif.-based company that is set to begin moving into the complex later this year.
Set on an 88-acre former steelmaking site, the 1.2- million-sq-ft building is about one-third of a mile long, yet the entire project is being built in 18 months. It was imbued with a sense of urgency from the start, pushed by the desire of Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) to make things happen quickly. That pace is reflected in the fact that the original size of the building was increased fivefold, but the schedule remained the same.
Ground was broken last September at the RiverBend site, located on a bend in the Buffalo River. To keep pace with the aggressive construction schedule, LPCiminelli, the Buffalo-based general contractor overseeing work, had to clear 50,000 tons of snow from the site over the winter to stay on schedule.
It wasn’t the first time LPCiminelli acted preemptively to ensure the project remained on schedule. During the summer of 2014, between the firm’s selection as project developer and completion of SolarCity’s final design, LPCiminelli used the hiatus to prepare the site.
Frank L. Ciminelli II, the company’s senior executive vice president who is overseeing work, was very familiar with the site. Several members of his family, like so many others in Buffalo, had worked there when it housed a Republic Steel factory that was one of the largest in the country.
As it happened, the foundation contractor’s father had old drawings of the steel factory plans. They turned out to be an invaluable guide for getting a timely start on the project and a good map for the industrial archaeology that was to come.
The brownfield site, one of the largest in New York state, was remediated long before the SolarCity facility was even on the drawing board. Republic Steel closed and demolished the plant in 1984. The site was sold to Steelfields Ltd., which did the remediation work and in 2008 sold it to the city of Buffalo for $4.6 million.
In May 2014, the state bought the 88-acre Area 1 lot for $2.5 million and in November bought the remaining 96-acre Area 2 for $2.8 million. The state has not yet determined how it will use the latter segment.
Because of Steelfields’ work, the site had a clean bill of health from the state Dept. of Environmental Conservation, but it still needed a lot of work before construction could begin.
Ciminelli’s chief concern at that point was finding the best orientation for the solar building. Because of its length, there was not a lot of leeway in how the building could be oriented. There were also concerns about what might be left underground and out of sight that might impede construction.