The Rise of Solar Powered Penitentiaries

When seen from above, concertina wire-contained campuses of correctional facilities stand out as mini and menacing mazes in the midst of expansive tracts of otherwise unused federal property. Though I would prefer state parks to state prisons, transforming these barren outposts into solar powered penitentiaries is a win-win and should become part of every state’s deliberate and comprehensive switch to clean energy. Every array helps states to meet renewable energy requirements and may provide some inmates with marketable skills, thus reducing recidivism.

This summer, SunEdison will work with the state of California to add 23MW to the grid. The privately-held company is contracted to install 83,000 PV panels across 5 prisons. Power generated by the resulting solar fields, along with arrays at Chuckawalla Valley State Prison (installed in 2006) and Ironwood State Prison (installed in 2008) puts California on track to save $55 million over 20 years.

Colorado already partially powers at least 9 prisons with the sun’s rays. Otero County, New Mexico will complete a 2MW 23,000 panel array in July. The Wabash Valley Correctional Facility in Indiana has been heating water for 200 inmates with a 15-panel array since February, and Maryland hopes to join the chain-gang with a 20MW plant near Hagerstown come December.

Prisons are perceived as gaping cultural wounds and unsightly outposts, transforming the acres-upon-acres of lost landscape into productive commercial solar plots is an enticing proposition, and one way we can strive to reach President Obama’s goal of 19% renewable energy by 2012 (and 80% by 2035). Also, with the incarcerated population growing by 3% each year, there should be no problem keeping up with on-site maintenance.

Article by Allison Leahy, appearing courtesy Earth & Industry.

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