Tesla to Partner with Panasonic to Make Solar Panels at Buffalo Factory

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CASSANDRA SWEET from THE WALL STREET JOURNAL

Facility originally intended to be a SolarCity manufacturing plant

Tesla Motors Inc. plans to join with Panasonic Corp. to make solar panels at a factory in Buffalo, N.Y., that originally was to be aSolarCity Corp. manufacturing plant.

Tesla’s management team said in a blog post Sunday night that the company has entered into a nonbinding agreement with Panasonic to “begin collaborating on the manufacturing and production of photovoltaic cells and modules in Buffalo, New York.”

Tesla said it plans to sell electric batteries, along with Panasonic’s panels, to residential, commercial and utility customers. SolarCity will sell, finance and install the panels.

Panasonic is a partner at Tesla’s Gigafactory battery plant near Reno, Nev. SolarCity has said it plans to make a new product—a roof that generates solar power—at the Buffalo factory. Mr. Musk earlier this month said that both Tesla and SolarCity are involved in the new product, which is set to be unveiled on Oct. 28..

“We are excited to expand our partnership with Panasonic as we move toward a combined Tesla and SolarCity,” said Tesla Chief Technical Officer J.B. Straubel in the blog post. He declined further comment through a spokeswoman.

Shuuji Okayama, vice president, Eco Solutions Company of Panasonic, added, “We expect that the collaboration talks will lead to growth of the Tesla and Panasonic relationship.”

Tesla shares slipped 1.3% to $193.96 while SolarCity lost 1.8% to $19.65, both in 4 p.m. trading on Monday.

Cash-strapped SolarCity faces a series of financial commitments as part of its deal with New York for the Buffalo factory, which is being partially financed by state taxpayers, who are set to cover $750 million in construction and equipment costs.

Among other requirements, SolarCity is supposed to spend $130 million the year after the factory is completed and the manufacturing equipment has been delivered, according to a 2014 agreement between the company and state representatives.

The company promised to create 500 factory jobs and 960 additional jobs in Buffalo, and 2,000 other jobs in the state within five years of the factory’s opening.

In response to questions, SolarCity recently said it was committed to the factory project but declined to disclose how it planned to fund it.

The factory is part of a New York economic revitalization project known as the Buffalo Billion that is now the subject of a federal corruption case. SolarCity, a tenant in the factory building, hasn’t been named in the probe.

Construction of the building is set to be completed next month, and the plant is expected to start churning out products by the end of June, according to Empire State Development, the state agency overseeing the project.

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo praised Tesla’s plans Monday, saying: “Tesla’s partnership with Panasonic will bring world-class manufacturing expertise to the table, strengthen the company’s competitiveness and position the entire region for future economic revitalization.”

SolarCity has more than $3 billion in debt and hasn’t turned a profit since it went public in 2012. The company spent $438 million this year through June, 42% more than its revenue of $308 million. It had $146 million of cash on June 30, from $421 million a year earlier.

Low on cash, the company has raised $405 million in the last few months to help shore up its finances, including selling $100 million in bonds to Mr. Musk, SolarCity Chief Executive Lyndon Rive, and his brother Peter Rive, the company’s chief technology officer. Mr. Musk and the Rive brothers are cousins.

While SolarCity is the largest installer of home solar panels in the U.S., it doesn’t currently make the panels it sells. Its move into manufacturing comes at a time when existing makers are struggling due to a global glut of solar panels.

Wholesale panel prices have fallen by about 15% this year, to about 61 cents a watt, on average, said Paula Mints, chief analyst at SPV Market Research in San Jose, Calif., adding that some panels made in China are going for as low as 40 cents a watt.

“As we go down this long road to unprofitability, entering this market is insane,” Ms. Mints said.

Kady Cooper, a SolarCity spokeswoman, said the company “can produce high-efficiency panels with superior aesthetics at costs similar to commodity panels.”

“Our products require customization that can only be scaled if we control the manufacturing,” she added.

Colin Rusch, an analyst at Oppenheimer & Co., questioned the wisdom of Tesla’s decision to expand further into the solar industry, but said that adding Panasonic seemed to make sense.

A partnership with Panasonic “could materially mitigate the capital needs for SolarCity,” he said. He opposes Tesla’s proposed SolarCity deal, saying that it isn’t “the best and highest use of capital for Tesla shareholders.”

SolarCity said Monday that it has created a $300 million fund with Credit Suisse Group to finance home solar-panel installations. The company announced a similar type of fund last month with Citigroup Inc. for $347 million.

Write to Cassandra Sweet at cassandra.sweet@wsj.com

 

 

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