Mar 20


Is Tesla using a rival’s solar panels?

Elon Musk’s company is installing solar panels on the roof of its plant in South Buffalo. Who makes them? It’s a “trade secret.”

Solar panels on the Tesla factory roof. Video via WGRZ.

What’s the big secret?

Tesla has installed solar panels on about one-third of the roof of its plant in South Buffalo, with plans to cover the rest by the end of the year.

This is not surprising. The plant, after all, was built to manufacture parts for solar panels.

But one thing doesn’t add up: The solar panels on the factory roof don’t look like the solar products Tesla sells. 

Most notably, Tesla advertises its products as lacking the white grid lines seen on most solar panels.  The panels on the factory roof, however, show white grid lines, according to drone footage of the panels shot by WGRZ.

The differences posed an obvious question: Whose solar panels are they?

Images from and WGRZ. Graphic by Garrett Looker.

Investigative Post has been asking that question since November. We’ve asked Tesla, two state economic development agencies, the City of Buffalo, employees and a solar panel expert.

The closest we got to an answer? The names of the panel manufacturer and vendor are a “trade secret,” according to a state agency. 

Meanwhile, a solar panel expert said the panels look like standard, commercial solar panels — the kind sold by numerous companies.

Yet state and company officials won’t say who made them.

“As the taxpayers of the state of New York have provided $959 million to Tesla for their Buffalo factory, it should not be a secret as to who provided the solar roof panels,” said Paul Wolf, president of the New York Coalition for Open Government

Another company’s panels?

If the panels installed on the factory roof were made by Tesla, they don’t look like any other solar product the company advertises.

A Solar Roof, for example, is composed of sleek, black tiles, meant to look like glossy shingles. And the solar panels Tesla sells are designed to have “no visible grid.” The design, as Tesla’s website makes clear, is meant to set its products apart from its competitors’ visually.

A Solar Roof installed on the Buffalo Heritage Carousel at Canalside. Photo by Garrett Looker.

But images of the solar panels, taken via drone by WGRZ, do not appear to be made of Solar Roof tiles and display a visible grid — raising the question of whether they’re a Tesla product.

Additional records obtained by Investigative Post show the panels were mounted on a rack made by the company Unirac, which makes mounting gear for solar panels. The specifications for the racks indicate that Tesla-branded solar panels are not compatible. A company spokesperson did not return a request for comment.

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Johnny Weiss, a solar panel expert and the co-founder of Solar Energy International, said the panels appear to be “pretty much the most common standard module format in the market today.”

“Every major company in the world makes modules like that now,” he added.

The panels installed so far generate 2.5MW of electricity, and Tesla plans to install panels capable of generating an additional 5MW by year’s end. The company, in a January report to state officials, said the total installation represents a $10 million investment and can supply up to 30 percent of the electricity the factory needs.

Stonewalled at every turn

In January 2023, Investigative Post reported that Tesla’s production of the Solar Roof had faltered. Manufacturing and logistical challenges caused the company to reduce production in Buffalo and use its factory for other manufacturing work and data-entry jobs instead, according to documents and former employees.

The state was slow to respond to a March 8, 2023, FOI request filed by Investigative Post to follow up on that reporting. After an appeal, Fort Schuyler Management Corp. began releasing heavily redacted documents in batches. Included were records that revealed that Tesla had installed solar panels on the roof of the factory.

On Nov. 15, Investigative Post asked Fort Schuyler officials: Who made those panels? 

Steve Ference, a Fort Schuyler spokesperson, said only, “Tesla purchased and installed the referenced solar panels at its expense; no state funds were used.”

Investigative Post followed up with Ference, as well as an Empire State Development spokesperson and an ESD lawyer. No one responded. Ference has also refused to return voicemail messages seeking comment. 

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In the meantime, Investigative Post sought any permits or inspection records from the City of Buffalo that may exist for the panels. Both the Fire Department and Department of Permits and Inspections said they had none, because the factory is not in its jurisdiction as a state agency owns the building.

We also asked Tesla directly. A spokesperson has yet to respond. So has CEO Elon Musk, who we emailed directly.

Finally, in January, Investigative Post filed another FOIL request, this one specifically for the name of the manufacturer of the panels, the name of the company that sold the panels and the name of the company that installed the panels. In response, a Fort Schuyler records officer said that Tesla had installed the panels but that the name of the manufacturer was a trade secret.

“Tesla has numerous facilities and operations located throughout the world, and does business with numerous suppliers of similar products and services,” the records officer said. “It maintains strict confidentiality concerning the identity of its suppliers and vendors because disclosure of the identity of a supplier could have a negative impact on its ability to obtain competitive terms and prices from other suppliers.”

Investigative Post has appealed that denial.

Wolf, whose organization advocates for public records access, found that explanation lacking.

“I fail to see how disclosing who installed the solar panels on the Tesla factory roof would violate a trade secret and if disclosed would cause substantial injury to Tesla,” Wolf said. “The disclosure may cause substantial embarrassment to Tesla but that is not a legitimate reason to deny a FOIL request.”

Investigative Post

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