Tesla using Chinese solar panels at South Buffalo factory – Investigative Post

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Factory was built with nearly a billion dollars in taxpayer funds but produces no solar modules. Instead, Elon Musk’s company is using a competitor’s product.

Solar panels installed on the roof of the South Buffalo Tesla factory. Image via WGRZ.

The Tesla factory in South Buffalo, built to manufacture solar panels, today uses solar panels on its roof made by a competitor in China.

That’s a fact state officials have reluctantly confirmed in response to a Freedom of Information request submitted by Investigative Post. Officials initially refused, claiming the identity of the manufacturer was a “trade secret,” but relented after an appeal filed under the FOI Law.

Tesla has covered about one-third of the factory’s roof with panels manufactured by LONGi Green Energy Technology, a Chinese firm and one of the world’s largest manufacturers of solar modules. It plans to cover the rest by the end of the year. Together, the panels will generate about 7.5 megawatts of electricity. Tesla also reportedly uses LONGi solar products at its plant in Austin. 

Tesla has borne the approximate $10 million cost for the panels. New York taxpayers, meanwhile, were on the hook for the $959 million used to build and equip the factory they’re installed on. Tesla told state officials in January that the panels could provide 30 percent of its electricity needs.

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Tesla sells both commercial and residential panels, as well as a Solar Roof, composed of individual, power-generating shingles. Its panels reportedly are manufactured by a Korean firm

Both module manufacturing and assembly of the Solar Roof once happened in Buffalo, but today all three products rely on solar modules made by other firms. Assembly of Solar Roof tiles still occurs in South Buffalo.

For Tesla, the revelation of its outsourcing is evidence of its struggles in the solar industry since it acquired SolarCity in 2016. SolarCity had previously acquired solar module manufacturer Silevo, intending to make, sell and install solar panels. After Tesla acquired SolarCity, however, which included taking over the deal with New York to occupy the Buffalo factory, Tesla sidelined Silevo, opting to have Panasonic manufacture solar modules for its Solar Roof. 

Tesla and Panasonic’s production of the Solar Roof — an aesthetic alternative for residential rooftop solar — replaced plans by Silevo and SolarCity to manufacture traditional solar panels. Solar Roof production in South Buffalo was meant to spark spin-off development and attract other clean energy companies to the city. 

But as Investigative Post reported last year, Tesla struggled to produce the Solar Roof at scale, eventually prompting Panasonic to move its 400 Buffalo jobs to Malaysia. At the time, Panasonic told federal regulators that it was moving the jobs overseas because “the demand for Panasonic’s solar cells has decreased due to Tesla and other companies importing solar cells from China.” In 2020, just before Panasonic left Buffalo, pv magazine published evidence that Solar Roof tiles were arriving at customers’ homes from China, by way of California.

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In other words, Tesla outsources the solar panels it uses and sells and uses foreign-made parts for its Solar Roof, assembled in Buffalo. As of last spring, only 3,000 Solar Roofs were installed, the energy trade group Wood Mackenzie found, far fewer than Tesla’s projections for the product. 

In addition to assembling the Solar Roof, Tesla currently uses the factory to make charging equipment for its cars and fix car batteries. It also has a large team of data analysts working to program its self-driving vehicle algorithm.

Despite its plans to manufacture its own solar modules in the United States, solar expert Johnny Weiss said it makes sense that Tesla would use modules manufactured by LONGi.

“Most of the world’s [photovoltaic] modules are manufactured in China,” said Weiss, co-founder of Solar Energy International, a nonprofit that trains workers for the solar industry. “[LONGi] has been the market leader in manufacturing solar panels for a long time. Obviously, most countries find it extremely difficult to compete with Chinese manufacturing.”

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Tesla’s use of LONGi solar products has caused problems for the company because LONGi has been subjected to import restrictions under the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act

That federal law, enacted in late 2021, blocks the import of goods manufactured in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region, due to evidence the goods were made with forced labor by the Uyghur Muslim population. Investigative Post reported last year that the ban caused production delays for Tesla’s Solar Roof.

A December 2020 investigation by Buzzfeed News found that China had rapidly built more than 100 steel-frame factories in the region where people imprisoned in reeducation camps were forced to work. In 2022, Reuters reported that shipments of solar products from LONGi and other companies were blocked by U.S. officials under the ban on forced labor.

Elissa Pierce, a solar technology researcher with Wood Mackenzie, said many large solar suppliers, like LONGi, were caught up at U.S. borders in the early months of enforcement of the forced labor ban, but that once they established paper trails proving compliance, U.S. Customs and Border Protection released their shipments.

Some manufacturers, Pierce said, shifted their supply chains to use non-Chinese components for their panels while others began using material made outside the Xinjiang region as a way to get around blockades by U.S. Customs.

Large suppliers now, she added, “are faring relatively well with minimal detentions and faster release times.”

It’s not clear if LONGi ever used forced labor to make its products. The company does, however, operate in the Xinjiang region. As recently as last year, a study by Sheffield Hallam University and the Helena Kennedy Centre for International Justice found that LONGi Solar was using materials sourced from companies located in the Xinjiang Uyghur region.

A LONGi spokesperson did not respond to a request for comment. Neither did a Tesla spokesperson or CEO Elon Musk.

Fort Schuyler spokesperson Steve Ference said the agency didn’t raise concerns with Tesla about where the panels came from. The agency, he said, typically only reviews “professional engineer-stamped drawings” for “adverse” impacts to state-owned buildings.

“It does not otherwise approve any parts of the project supply chain,” he said.

Yet until last week, New York officials helped Tesla keep its ties to the Chinese company secret.

In November, Investigative Post began asking Fort Schuyler officials whether or not the solar panels installed on the factory roof were manufactured by Tesla, because they didn’t look like the products Tesla advertises. 

Why use a competitor’s panels when it sells its own? 

Spokesperson Steve Ference refused to say. 

Investigative Post then filed a Freedom of Information Law request with Fort Schuyler in January, seeking the name of the manufacturer of the panels and the company that sold them to Tesla. In March, the agency responded by saying any records listing the name of the manufacturer and vendor were a “trade secret.”

Investigative Post appealed that denial of information and won. Fort Schuyler subsequently named LONGi as the manufacturer of the solar panels.

posted 59 seconds ago – April 10, 2024

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