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Saturday, 6 August 2011

Renewable energy - the elephant in the prison?

If I were a capitalist, I would be on the lookout for things that would make or save money with a low to negative running cost and incentives for start-up. Republicans, so I'm told, don't like taxing the populous (except when they are inmates and their families, or others of low social economic status) and generally don't like spending on anything that doesn't directly benefit the economy. Democrats, conversely, like to spend as much as it takes and often significantly more, with an eye on the long-term benefits.

So to solve at least some of the growing financial problems in the USA, and with a focus on expensive criminal justice and incarceration, you'd think what was needed was something that saved money that was already leaking out of the system, and could also perhaps help the local and general economies, plus maybe provide some training for inmates in real skills they could use when released? Reading the media coverage recently, particularly in Texas, you'd also think that was an impossible dream.

Name me something that is free in Texas.

Yes, I know that is kinda difficult, seeing as most things in Texas are felonies or misdemeanours including 11 oyster-related crimes and the new crime of lying about the size of a fish caught during a competition. But go on, give it a try. What is practically unavoidable in Texas for more than 8 months a year, is free, and shows little sign of running out like the oil in the Gulf of Mexico?

A clue? OK, it's very big, bright yellow, sits in the sky, and currently is causing major problems of heat-related illness and death across much of the southern and middle American states.

You got it - the SUN!

Most prisons in Texas have no air conditioning at all besides a few areas like the visitation rooms and medical wings. This week, temperatures have reached a staggering 135 degrees F in some prison housing units in Texas. Reports have started to emerge of inmates suffering severe heat stroke and possible heat-related deaths. No one should be surprised at this. Keeping anyone or anything in a concrete or metal box, often with glass on one side where the sun shines through all day, but not having windows that open or an air conditioning system in place and only limited access to cool water for longer than a few hours is going to result in health issues. You can't keep an animal in those conditions and expect to evade the law. You certainly can't keep a child in a car on a sunny day without someone reporting you to the police - and nor should you.

So why is it exactly that the lawmakers in Texas think it is OK to keep humans in those conditions? I'm not just talking about inmates here, I'm referring to the guards, medical and support staff who also have to endure between 8 and 12 hours a day in that heat, often in heavy uniforms.

The response has historically been that while schools and nursing homes still exist without AC, prisons wont get it either. It's too expensive, they say. Our grandfathers managed without it, they say. It would be coddling inmates, they say.

It is odd that Texans have that particular mentality that stops them from seeing the wood for the trees, or in this case, the sun from the shine. Maybe it's genetics, maybe it's fear, maybe it's just plain stupidity. It doesn't really matter what it is, the fact remains that once again, Texas is falling behind the rest of the world when it comes to solving a growing energy cost crisis.

From the Philippines, where prisons are investing in biogas installations to help reduce fuel costs, to the UK where several of HM Prisons have installed solar panels and other heat collection devices in an attempt to reduce fossil fuel use and energy costs, governments are making serious efforts to harness renewable resources to reduce public spending.

Some US states have also taken up the challenge to make the sun and wind work for them. Maryland, Colorado, Indiana, California and Nevada all have prisons that now make use of renewable resources. The set-up costs have been mitigated by grants from central government and sometimes with help from the companies providing the equipment too. Even Oregon, famous for its rainy days, has invested in solar water heaters for one of its prisons. But I have to say, it took some investigation to find these projects. Departments of Correction in the US appear to be embarrassed about publicly talking about their green strategies to save money.

Perhaps that is why Texas has been slow on the uptake (again). Constricted by the Bible belt, a lot of people do not believe that global warming is actually happening. Hurricanes and tornadoes are still messages from God, sending destruction on communities that are embedded in sin and just don't pray hard enough. But religion and renewable energy projects do not have to be mutually exclusive. You don't have to believe in global warming to feel the cool air created by an AC unit powered by the sun.

If you don't want to look at the sun (which obviously, you shouldn't do without protection), then how about all that hot air in Texas? According to the American Wind Energy Association, Texas is home to the top 5 energy producing wind farms in the US, and has 7 of the top 10. These can currently power over 2.7 million homes. Texas has the luxury of a lot of wide open space where few people live. The opposition to wind farms in Europe is usually their proximity to communities, but Texas doesn't have that issue. There is literally thousands of miles of Texas that could house wind farms. The AWEA says that

"According to a resource assessment from the National Renewable Energy Lab, Texas’ wind resource could provide 19 times the state’s current electricity needs."

All that free energy just blowing around the state right now and not paying for its right to be there! And TDCJ owns a lot of land.

Citizens of Texas, isn't it about time you asked your politicians why they are ignoring this free source of power? The next time you have a power outage, just remember that with a solar panel or two on your property, YOU have control.

As for the prisons (and schools and nursing homes, and public buildings such as libraries, hospitals and even the Capitol Complex in Austin), that's an awful lot of roof space going to waste. Texas has approximately 160,000 units of free labour with which to clear ground ready for solar or wind installations, and the same number of potentially trained technicians to help maintain the renewable energy installations once they are running. So not only is the energy free, so is the physical labour costs to install it.

The case for using renewable energy as a preference over any other kind is growing. But not in Texas. There, oil is still king. And that, dear readers, is probably the biggest single reason why Texas will eventually self-combust. Lack of influence by eco-companies against the might of the oil companies means they can't gain access to the politicians. And it is likely that even if the eco-companies could get the ear of one or two legislators, the reach of the oil companies is so vast and so ingrained in Texas politics, no one will rock the boat.

Air conditioning in Texas prisons will more than likely only happen if the Federal government intervenes, or if a successful law suit is brought by a large organisation such as Amnesty or the ACLU. The truth of the matter is that even if the prisons were in a structural condition that could support air conditioning powered by renewable energy, those legislators who make the decisions are simply not interested in losing the patronage of their friends in oil.

The only hope for change that I can see at the moment on this issue is to lobby the private prison companies. States appear to believe that shifting the responsibility from State to contracted beds will solve their corrections budget overspend. Private companies build modern prisons, which could easily be equipped with renewable energy installations from the beginning.

Maybe the capitalists will win this particular battle after all.

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