New York Installing Solar on Prisons — But Awkwardly Avoids Saying That

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In a recent press release from the governor’s office in the State of New York, things got a little awkward. They started out on strong footing, but seemed to be embarrassed about where they plan to install a bunch of solar capacity.

“Governor Kathy Hochul today, during Earth Week, announced the deployment of more than 30 megawatts of solar energy throughout upstate New York,” the press release said. “The New York Power Authority designed and implemented solar energy systems at five New York State Department of Corrections and Community Supervision facilities comprised of more than 75,000 solar panels—enough to power 7,000 homes.”

It’s pretty clear that they were doing their best to avoid coming out and straight up saying that they’re installing solar panels on state prisons, instead employing long-winded, technical phrasing, like “Department of Corrections and Community Supervision Facilities,” while being a lot more clear about the benefits of solar and who they want voters to attribute these benefits to (Governor Kathy Hochul).

For those familiar with media coverage of law enforcement, this probably sounds familiar. Phrases like “officer-involved shooting” are a great example of the overall media practice of relaying “copaganda.” Sure, the reporting can be technically truthful, but when we sanitize and sterilize the truth to the point where important details get buried or minimized to preserve the image of the authorities, actual truth gets lost in translation.

The quote the press release provided buried things a little further by backing away from a sterile, technical description of prisons to an acronym:

“Achieving New York’s ambitious climate and clean energy goals requires historic investments in renewable energy,” Governor Hochul said. “By installing more than 75,000 solar panels at DOCCS facilities, New York continues to lead by example, paving the way for a brighter, greener future for all.”

It wasn’t until the third paragraph that the release even mentions prisons, calling them “state correctional facilities.” Once again, we know what that is, but it’s a sanitized term that tries to shift away from a negative connotation toward something more technical and dry.

It’s Still Good News, Though

What’s sad about the handling of this news is that it’s still good news for clean technology and the environment. The two largest prisons will have photovoltaic energy systems that will generate 6.9 MW of distributed solar. Meanwhile, the remaining sites are predicted to generate 4.9 MW. The combined projects will have a major impact in reducing carbon emissions, potentially decreasing nearly 4,500 tons of carbon emission. This reduction in carbon emissions is equivalent to removing 880 cars from the road.

“Under Governor Hochul’s leadership, New York is one of the strongest solar markets in the nation—bringing clean, affordable energy to every corner of the state, including our correctional and community supervision facilities,” said New York State Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) President and CEO Doreen M. Harris. “These five projects will reduce on-site emissions and cut energy costs for these facilities while helping achieve our Climate Act goals.”

The recently executed solar projects were awarded more than $5.2 million from the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority through NY-Sun. The state-owned initiative, costing $3.3 billion, aims to scale up the advancement of solar energy as well as ease access to homes, businesses, and communities.

The solar industry’s growth in New York has been remarkable, with a 3,000% increase since its inception, generating nearly $7.3 billion in private investments and decreasing its costs by 73%. Additionally, approximately 13,400 professionals are currently working in the solar industry across New York.

In addition to these five recently deployed projects, NYPA is currently constructing 33 energy efficiency projects at DOCCS facilities, totaling $124 million that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 27,600 metric tons — the equivalent of removing nearly 6,000 cars from the road. NYPA and DOCCS also are actively developing $230 million in energy efficiency improvement measures that will reduce greenhouse gas emissions by an additional 22,500 metric tons.

What’s even better news is that this is part of a much bigger climate plan.

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The press release says the state is aggressively implementing some of the nation’s most pro-active climate and clean energy initiatives, which aim at creating a zero-emission electricity sector full of renewable energy by 2040, and reaching almost 70% by 2030. The broader aim is to become completely carbon-neutral by mid-century. One of the primary contributors to this program is New York’s clean energy investments of over $35 billion in 120 large-scale renewable energy and transmission projects statewide, as well as $6.8 billion allocated to reduce building emissions, $1.8 billion for increasing the scalability of solar, $1+ billion for clean transportation initiatives, and over $1.8 billion in NY Green Bank commitments.

So, despite the awkwardness, the press release did share good and important news.

A Better Way To Avoid Greenwashing A Real Societal Problem

It’s still pretty clear that the governor’s office is embarrassed to say “prison” and wants to distance this good news from prisons. The reason is obvious: U.S. prisons are a global embarrassment.

By raw number of prisoners, the U.S. is only narrowly beat by China, despite the latter having more than a billion more people and much more authoritarian policies. Problems with safety, treatment of prisoners, and actual rehabilitative efforts plague the system. China and many other countries may be worse in that regard (some far, far worse), but there are also many other developed and stable countries that do a much better job of keeping people out of prison, rehabilitating them, and not introducing racial disparities.

In other words, the United States, being one of the wealthiest countries on the planet, should be doing a lot better, but we just aren’t. Sadly, it’s an extension of other problems that plague our country, including a desperate need for criminal justice reform and better anti-poverty and mental-health programs.

Instead of trying to greenwash and sanitize prisons, we should instead focus on making our prisons and the overall criminal justice system less of an embarrassment. That’s going to take a lot more effort than writing an awkward self-serving press release, though.

I do think that responsible cleantech media does need to call this sort of thing out when we see it. Spreading government messaging that misuses the industry while minimizing the real harms a corrupt and broken system perpetuates shouldn’t happen without comment, even if we generally otherwise agree with the politicians engaging in it.

Featured image: the solar installation at Green Haven Correctional Facility. Image provided by New York Power Authority.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1985 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba