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Elon Musk Takes Solar City From Silicon Valley To...Buffalo ?!?!?

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Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

Tesla Motors CEO Elon Musk at Tesla Store opening in Westfield Mall, London, Oct 2013

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When he's not running electric-car startup Tesla Motors, its CEO Elon Musk has a couple of other jobs on the side.

In fact, he's not only involved in CEO of one startup, but three--the other two being SpaceX (privately-funded rockets) and Solar City (solar-panel leasing), where he's chairman of the board.

Solar City hit the news last week when it announced it would buy Silevo, a startup maker of high-quality solar cell modules.

Solar Panels by Flickr user Chandra Marsono

Solar Panels by Flickr user Chandra Marsono

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That closely held startup is based in Fremont, California, the very same Silicon Valley city where Tesla's Model S assembly plant is located.

As reported in The Wall Street Journal, Silevo is in the process of building a U.S. solar-module fabrication plant--estimated at $350 million to $400 million--to expand its current production capacity, which now comes from China.

The company has said it wants to triple the size of the largest current solar-cell plant in the U.S. today, letting it compete head-to-head on cost with the largest Chinese solar makers.

Musk and Solar City Silevo cofounder Peter Rive--who happens to be Musk's cousin--say their ultimate goal is to produce 1,000 megawatts gigawatts of solar cells a year in the plant.

DON'T MISS: Tesla's Lithium-Ion Battery Gigafactory: What You Need To Know

Sounds rather like Tesla's proposed gigafactory for lithium-ion cells, doesn't it?

"What we are trying to address is not the lay of the land today," Solar City wrote in a blog post about its acquisition, "but how we see the future developing."

Slide showing Tesla Motors gigafactory statistics, from Feb 2014 presentation

Slide showing Tesla Motors gigafactory statistics, from Feb 2014 presentation

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"Without decisive action to lay the groundwork today, the massive volume of affordable, high efficiency panels needed for unsubsidized solar power to outcompete fossil-fuel grid power simply will not be there when it is needed."

But Solar City's plant-in-progress is located neither in California nor the sunny Southwest, but in grey, cloudy Buffalo, New York.

As New York Intelligencer explains, the choice of Buffalo came down to state incentives.

New York State had previously committed to spending $225 million at the plant site--where a Republic Steel mill was previously located--as part of long-term and costly efforts to revitalize the struggling upstate economy outside New York City.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has staked much of his political future on bringing jobs to the state, and the Buffalo plan is just one of several high-tech locations upstate. Another is a microelectronics center outside the state capital of Albany.

Cuomo also brokered a deal to let Tesla maintain its existing Tesla Store locations and continue to sell its electric cars directly to New York state buyers online.

But if the Silevo plant comes to fruition, effectively making it Musk's second "gigafactory," it will prove that solar panels don't need to be made in a place that gets much sun.

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