Convalt site work could begin in November

Oct. 22—HOUNSFIELD — Convalt Energy might be able to start work on its massive solar panel plant near the Watertown International Airport before hearing about a $25 million loan.

David J. Zembiec, CEO of Jefferson County Economic Development, said he plans to ask his board at its Nov. 3 meeting to allow the company to start site work for the 300,000-square-feet plant off Route 12F in the town of Hounsfield.

“The company will be able to save a couple of months on construction,” Mr. Zembiec said.

A groundbreaking has been pushed back several months while Convalt waits to hear about a loan with X-Caliber Rural Capital, a licensed United States Department of Agriculture lender in Irvington, Westchester County.

Convalt has applied for a loan through the USDA’s Business and Industry Guaranteed Loan Program.

Company president and CEO Hari Achuthan said Friday that before Christmas “is the best case scenario” about hearing about the loan and “in January, is the worst case scenario.”

“The project is going to get done,” he said. “There’s a lot to get through. There’s a lot of paperwork.”

The site work — which includes leveling the ground at the 88-acre site and removing tree stumps — would begin by the end of November, Mr. Achuthan said. Plans call for possibly getting the plant’s footings in place this winter.

He now hopes the plant would be completed in July or August of next year.

“I would love to say July Fourth,” he said.

Last month, the Jefferson County Industrial Development Agency board approved a six-month extension — until March 15 — to Convalt and its sister company, DigiCollect, on its Land Development Agreement to allow the company to continue to work on the loan. The agreement recently expired with the JCIDA.

However, the company would still not be able to begin the plant’s actual construction until the financing is in place, Mr. Zembiec said.

Mr. Zembiec and the JCIDA have been working with Convalt on the project.

Bonnie Habyan, X-Caliber’s director of marketing, said it’s the lending company’s policy not to talk about an applicant’s loan application.

Mr. Zembiec said it takes time for X-Caliber to finish its “due diligence” on Convalt’s loan application.

“There’s a lot more review and requirements to get that approved,” he said.

X-Caliber offers loans through the USDA’s OneRD Guaranteed Loan Initiative in rural areas with populations less than 50,000, according to its website.

The loans range from $1 million to $25 million, with fixed or variable terms rates for 25 to 30 years.

The loans can be for construction for start-up companies that rely on future projected income.

The manufacturing plant would create 320 jobs within three years with the potential for hundreds more in the future.

The facility would produce 900 megawatts of solar panels starting in late 2023 or 2024. His customers have been notified about the delay in production, Mr. Achuthan said.

He had originally hoped to break ground in May or June but it took longer to get through the Hounsfield town planning board approval process and he didn’t expect the loan to be delayed.

To get ready for the plant’s completion, Convalt would use $18 million in solar manufacturing equipment that it purchased last year from SunPower, from a defunct solar manufacturing plant in Hillsboro, Oreg.

The equipment was trucked from Oregon to Watertown. It’s now being stored in a pair of buildings on the city’s north side, in a former scrap building on North Pearl Street and a World War II plant on Purdy Street that was used by New York Air Brake plant to make tanks.

Convalt is building the Watertown plant to compete with energy companies in China that have lower labor costs to manufacture solar panels.

The Watertown facility would sell its solar panels to utility, commercial and residential solar customers in the U.S. and abroad.

The company also is planning to construct a second plant at the site.

Plans for the DigiCollect facility, a software company that manufactures sensors for monitoring residential grids and transmission lines, have not begun yet.