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Green-Collar Jobs Heading to the Clink

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Forget license plates, prisoners are going solar these days. Massachusetts-based Spire (s SPIR) announced today that it signed a $54.9 million deal to supply solar cells to a solar module factory located in a federal prison in upstate New York. And Spire is no stranger to prison work — the company installed the photovoltaic solar module factory in the Otisville, N.Y., prison earlier this year.

The contract is with the government-owned Federal Prison Industries, also known as Unicor, which uses prisoners to make products and provide services, mostly for the U.S. government. Spire said that modules manufactured at the prison in Otisville will be sold for use in government installations.

That could mean more than just a few government buildings getting solar panels. “If you consider the military barracks and all those military installations,” Nader Kalkhoran, VP of business development at Spire, told us. “That’s a huge market in itself.”

This isn’t the first cleantech deal for Unicor, which already has an electronics recycling program that offers recycling services around the country.

Spire said this deal could lead to more solar factories going up at other prisons. If that happens, Unicor could end up with a slight advantage over more traditionally-staffed solar module makers. Unicor pays inmates “considerably less” than minimum wage, according to its web site, and as a wholly-owned corporation of the federal government, Unicor is exempt from federal and state income taxes, as well as gross receipts taxes and property taxes.

But Unicor argues on its web site that those low wages don’t give it an unfair competitive advantage, saying that there are extra costs to operating a factory in a prison, citing inmate training and staff supervision, as well as what it says are efficiency constraints associated with a prison work environment.

“These inmates will gain experience, so once they are out of the prison, they can have the know-how [and] can enter the workforce,” said Kalkhoran.

The two-year contract is for a minimum of 25 megawatts of solar cells, according to the original government solicitation, but there are options to extend the contract, which could bring it up to 75 MW. In addition to supplying the solar cells and installing the turnkey production line, Spire said it also has contracts supply the training to operate the line, as well as assistance in making sure the factory and the modules pass international solar standards and certification.

More than one in 100 adults are behind bars in the U.S., according to a study released by the Pew Charitable Trusts earlier this year, which unfortunately means there could be plenty of workers available for an expanding cleantech industry in the prison system.

Kalkhoran said the solar production line in Otisville is expected to be operational in the first quarter of next year.

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