SolarCity may bring in a partner to produce the solar cells that will be used in the modules it will begin making next year in Buffalo. Solar cells are one of the fundamental building blocks of a solar panel. This week SolarCity said it hopes to utilize the solar cells it acquires from an outside provider when it starts panel production before the end of June 2017.

SolarCity SCTY

Similar to Tesla-Panasonic arrangement

On a conference call, SolarCity Chairman Elon Musk briefed investors, saying that SolarCity, which has consented to be acquired by Tesla, had already considered getting a partner for its solar cells. This approach would be similar to what Tesla does with its EV batteries, with Panasonic producing the battery cells that are used in its batteries.

Musk’s remarks clearly indicate that SolarCity could set up an additional sweeping supply deal for the many solar cells that are used in each solar panel. He added that the solar company is “entertaining some discussions with strategic partners on the solar cell manufacturing. And some of those could head in an interesting direction.” Musk noted that if Tesla and SolarCity win shareholder endorsement for their merger, the “default path” for the consolidated company would be to keep doing its solar cell engineering internally and add to its engineering staff.

“There may be some merit to bringing in a strategic partner, as Tesla has with the battery cell manufacturing,” Musk said. To generate battery cells within Tesla’s $5 billion battery Gigafactory, Panasonic is investing $1.6 billion.

SolarCity plant is more efficient than before

The largest solar panel plant in the western hemisphere will be SolarCity’s 1.2 million-square-foot manufacturing plant in South Buffalo when it reaches full production, possibly in 2018. This factory is being built with $750 million in state incentives.

Initially, the plan was to make sufficient solar panels to create 1,000 megawatts of power, though this week, Peter Rive, SolarCity’s chief technology officer, said enhancements to the factory layout and equipment design could permit it to make more than 1 gigawatts in panels.

To create high proficiency solar panels, the Buffalo plant relies on the innovations SolarCity gained when it purchased panel developer Silevo. The solar panels are expected to have the capacity to turn about 22% of the sun’s energy into power, up from the roughly 18% offered by most traditional panels.