Solar project eyes Oct. 1 start

WATERTOWN — Construction on what could be the biggest economic development project in Jefferson County’s history could start as early as Oct. 1.

In February, the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency announced that Convalt Energy, a New York City-based renewable energy company, plans to build a solar manufacturing plant in the agency’s proposed business park near the Watertown International Airport on Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.

Convalt Energy President Hari Achuthan told the JCIDA board Thursday that he targets construction of the 315,000-square-foot manufacturing plant to start by October. It could be in operation by June 2022, he added.

“It’s an aggressive schedule,” he said.

The $63.1 million manufacturing plant would employ 290 workers.

Convalt’s sister company, DigiCollect, also would build a facility in the business park that would eventually employ as many as 2,000 people over 10 years.

David J. Zembiec, chief executive officer of Jefferson County Economic Development, said the JCIDA “is focusing immediately” on Convalt before starting to work on DigiCollect.

Mr. Achuthan told the JCIDA board that he recently purchased the manufacturing line of an Oregon energy renewable company, SunPower Corporation, which closed that portion of its business this winter, so it could concentrate on a service line.

Mr. Achuthan is in the process of dismantling the Oregon plant so it can transport the equipment in crates to the Hounsfield site.

Calling it “a challenge,” he says he finds the COVID-19 pandemic is causing the cost of transporting the equipment to be two to three times higher than projected. The pandemic has also caused a construction material shortage that has been impacting the cost of lumber, so he has been advised to wait a couple of months before purchasing the materials until costs decrease.

On Thursday, the JCIDA board agreed to negotiate a new tax abatement program for Convalt because Mr. Achuthan is using a different subsidiary of his company for the Hounsfield project than he originally planned.

The project must still go through the site plan and permitting process before construction can start.

According to the company’s tax abatement application, the company needs the payment-in-lieu-of-taxes, or PILOT, program to compete with energy companies in China that have lower labor costs.

Convalt would offer solar panel manufacturing, rooftop solar, energy and EV charger manufacturing at the plant on 88 acres at the airport site.

The project would be financed through $44,184,000 in bank loans, $18,936,000 in equity from the purchase of SunPower equipment, $9,925,000 in state Excelsior tax credits and $20,075,000 in state Excelsior investment tax credits, according to the paperwork submitted to the JCIDA.

The plant management would receive a $300,000 annual salary, $60,000 for professional employees, $50,000 for production workers and $45,000 for administrative employees.

During its construction, 144 construction workers would be employed. He plans to hire union workers during construction and consider using local contractors when bids go out, Mr. Achuthan said.

The plant would include additional floor space for storing more materials, he told the JCIDA board.

The companies will be the first to build in the proposed airport business park.

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