For the past few months stories about escalating solar trade tensions between the US and China have dominated the headlines. During this time Oregon Senator Ron Wyden has emerged as a passionate and vocal advocate for US solar manufacturing facilities, as he should considering SolarWorld’s Oregon plant employs a lot of the Senator’s constituents.
However, in focusing so much attention on alleged trade violations by the Chinese government and its solar companies, has Senator Wyden overlooked a solar manufacturing facility in Oregon, owned by the US government that is undercutting American solar manufacturing facilities through the use of cheap prison labor:
Federal Prison Industries has traditionally relied on office furniture, electronics and clothing manufacturing for the bulk of its business, but it has been moving into new industries like renewable energy. Inmates do not install solar panels, but assemble them; when fully operational, the plants in Otisville, NY, and Sheridan, OR, can employ about 400 inmates and produce 75 megawatts worth of panels a year. Federal Prison Industries, also known as UNICOR, does not have to worry much about its overhead. It uses prisoners for labor, paying them 23 cents to $1.15 an hour.