Elon Musk’s energy company SolarCity used multi-million dollar state tax credits to fund prison labor for its solar panels. SolarCity is a top company in the U.S. renewable energy sector, raising questions about labor oversight in green technology.
The solar panel project launched in 2012, aiming to build two of the largest installations in the state on two university campuses in Oregon. According to Grist, the sites at Oregon State University and the Oregon Institute of Technology would be built and maintained by Musk’s SolarCity, at no cost to the school.
The Oregon Department of Energy issued $11.8 million in tax credits to SolarCity for the $27 million project under a state program advocating “job creation and retention” for Oregon workers, reports Grist.
Instead of stimulating the local employment market, however, SolarCity went through an energy company named Suniva, a Goldman Sachs-backed vendor that builds solar modules in Oregon’s Sheridan Federal Prison through inmate labor. Grist reports that prisoners were paid less than a dollar an hour for their work.
Reuters originally reported on Suniva in June, highlighting that the company, one of the nation’s largest solar module producers, farmed out 10 percent of its manufacturing to U.S. prisons as part of a rehabilitation agreement with the federal government. According to Reuters, their agreement with Federal Prison Industries, also called Unicor, has allowed them to bring their manufacturing back to the U.S. from Asia.
Unicor rehabilitates inmates through the Prison Industry Enhancement Certification Program (PIE), however facilities involved in the program must be certified to ensure good working conditions and fair wages. Grist reports that the Sheridan prison was not certified, resulting in the 93 cents-an-hour wage.
Jonathan Bass, spokesperson for SolarCity responded to criticism, claiming prisoner labor was their only choice. “We wanted it to be manufactured in the U.S., and we wanted it to be manufactured in Oregon,” said Bass. He also noted that prison labor accounts for less than 1 percent of SolarCity’s installations. The tax credit they received was meant for local economic stimulation in Oregon however, which never materialized.
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