Local economy scores major coup with luring of SolarCity to Las Vegas

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Elon Musk, chairman and CEO of Tesla Motors, speaks during the National Clean Energy Summit 5.0 on Tuesday, Aug. 7, 2012, at Bellagio.

This is what state officials had in mind when they created a $10 million catalyst fund to be used to close deals to persuade companies to bring their operations to Nevada.

In less than an hour Thursday, the Governor’s Office of Economic Development board doled out more than $2 million in grant money as incentive to attract three companies to the state.

Two of those companies appear to be coming to Southern Nevada, and one of them is being hailed as the most significant catch in the program’s short history.

It’s also the most expensive.

In a unanimous vote, the board approved a catalyst fund request of $1.2 million to San Mateo, Calif.-based SolarCity Corp., a publicly traded company founded by legendary entrepreneur Elon Musk, whose other business ventures have included PayPal, an electronic payment system that was sold to eBay for $1.5 billion; SpaceX, a space launch vehicle company; and Tesla Motors, an American electric car company.

On the surface, the SolarCity deal doesn’t appear that impressive. The company plans to bring its back office and sales staff to Las Vegas and pay an average wage of $21.

But economic development leaders believe the SolarCity deal would be an important first step in the company’s bid to grow in Nevada and that could include manufacturing and distribution centers for solar power equipment.

The catalyst funding will pay for the relocation of some of SolarCity’s employees and is payable over three years after the verification of new jobs created in the state. Under SolarCity’s plan, the company would create 900 primary jobs.

Toby Corey, chief revenue officer for SolarCity, told board members that the company has 50,000 customers in 14 states and is doubling its customer base every year.

The company works with customers to develop solar energy systems at homes, schools and government offices. The company researches a customer’s needs, designs and installs a system and helps monitor it after installation.

Corey said SolarCity is the largest clean energy company in the United States and has partnerships with Home Depot and Honda Motors. It partners with Wal-Mart as a retail outlet and is working with Pulte and Shea Homes — two homebuilders with operations in Southern Nevada — on developing energy-efficient residences.

Gov. Brian Sandoval, who noted that SolarCity was considering its next move to other states, said he was pleased with the company’s decision to make Nevada its next stop. Corey said SolarCity looked at options in Colorado, Arizona, Oregon and Idaho before concluding that it would establish its new office in Las Vegas. With a current market penetration of just 0.4 percent, Sandoval said there’s plenty of growth potential for SolarCity.

The company already has begun working with the Nevada System of Higher Education, the College of Southern Nevada, UNLV and the state’s Department of Employment, Training and Rehabilitation to develop programs to build an educated workforce in renewable energy.

Corey said the company is putting the finishing touches on a lease agreement to place its Las Vegas office at Town Square and he said he hopes the company will move in by May.

“This is a monumental moment for this board,” Sandoval said after the unanimous vote was cast to award the funds.

“You had me at Elon Musk,” added board member Ross Miller, the secretary of state.

The other Southern Nevada catalyst fund approval didn’t create quite as much fanfare — and the company hasn’t reached a final decision to build in the state. The board unanimously approved a $625,000 grant for Salt Lake City-based Nicholas & Co. for a 200,000-square-foot food distribution center in North Las Vegas.

Funds would be disbursed over five years upon verification of the establishment of 125 jobs.

Peter Mouskondis, the company’s president and CEO, said he recognizes Las Vegas as an important food center in the United States, but the privately held company is still considering an offer in Phoenix.

The third catalyst fund application approved was a $200,000 request from Cristek Interconnects, an aerospace and defense company that is looking to move its corporate headquarters from Anaheim, Calif., to Minden.