Veterans find jobs, and new mission, with clean tech industry
With the war in Iraq officially over and the American presence in Afghanistan winding down, many veterans are finding new careers and that strong sense of purpose in the growing clean-tech economy.
Some are helping build the massive solar farms sprouting up in California's deserts. A black POW-MIA flag flies every day at BrightSource Energy's Ivanpah solar plant under construction in California's Mojave Desert, courtesy of a project superintendent who was a Marine in Vietnam.
About 10 percent of Palo Alto, Calif.-based Tesla Motors' global work force of 3,000 employees are veterans or military hires. The company has built partnerships with several military placement organizations, including Hire America's Heroes, which connects American companies to top military talent, and Swords to Plowshares, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that has been providing services to veterans for more than 40 years.
"Veterans are the perfect fit for Tesla because many of them gained incredibly advanced technical, electrical and mechanical skills in the service that are directly applicable to manufacturing electric vehicles," said Tesla spokeswoman Shanna Hendriks. "Veterans are taught to be leaders within the context of a cooperative team, and that is exactly how Tesla works - allowing employees to think outside the box while working hard toward a common goal."
Hendriks added that many of Tesla's veteran employees say they are "especially happy to be working in the green sector after observing how fossil fuels have promoted violence and damaged the climate around the world."
The Department of Defense - eager to reduce its dependence on oil in the battlefield and keen to become energy-efficient at home - is investing in clean technology, including advanced biofuels, electric vehicles, solar-powered batteries and bases that generate their own electricity. The support of clean energy is directly tied to saving lives, says Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, who has pointed out that for every 50 convoys of gasoline brought into a war zone, a Marine is killed or wounded.
About 20 percent of the roughly 800 workers currently constructing First Solar's 550 megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., are veterans.
"We've got a lot of guys from Iraq and Afghanistan, and they've taken on leadership roles," said Richard D'Amato, who oversees construction at Topaz, which First Solar says will produce enough electricity to power 160,000 homes. "They are used to working hard in less than great conditions. It can be 110 degrees on some days."
D'Amato, who was a Marine during the Vietnam era, says veterans bring something special to First Solar - intense pride and esprit de corps.
"The way to get off of foreign oil is through wind and solar. Our guys believe in it," he said. "It's a rallying point, especially in California, where the cost of energy is so darn high. I've met their families, and their wives always say, 'What you guys are doing with renewable energy is great.' "
There are no hard statistics about how many veterans work in clean tech, or whether proportionately more veterans enter clean tech than other sectors of the economy. But for veterans like Michael Eyman, who ended a 17-year Navy career in 2009, clean tech seemed a perfect fit.
"I started thinking about clean energy when I was out with Operation Southern Watch in the late 1990s," said Eyman, referring to the U.S. patrols of the "no-fly" zone in Iraq. "When you are in the Middle East as a military person, you start to wonder: 'Why am I here? Why is the United States so interested in this region?' And energy quickly becomes one of the issues."
Eyman searched corporate websites for information and took note when executives had military experience. He scoured LinkedIn for contacts. In March, he sent his resume to SunPower, Silicon Valley's leading solar manufacturer. He took a risk and went up the chain of command, writing a lengthy email to Marty Neese, SunPower's chief operating officer. Eyman knew that Neese graduated from the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and was a captain in the Army.
"I am looking for the same kind of connection to mission and vision that I enjoyed in my 17 years in the Navy. Alternative energy has precisely that kind of higher purpose," Eyman wrote. "I want to get involved, but could use some advice on how to transition my background to a civilian market which so often doesn't understand what my years and experiences mean."
Neese was impressed by Eyman's resume, passion and drive. In July, Eyman began working for SunPower out of its Austin, Texas, office as a product manager.
Monica Anguiano, 27, joined the Army after graduating from high school and served from 2003 to 2007 in the Signal Corps as a telecommunications operator. She now works at SolarCity, one of the nation's leading rooftop solar installers, as a residential programs associate, acting as the liaison between customers and utility companies.
"When you get in the military, the first thing they teach you is work smarter, not harder," said Anguiano, who first saw rooftop solar on a large scale when she was stationed in Germany. "Clean energy is a lot smarter. It's a no-brainer to me to try to expand solar instead of sticking with coal and oil. When I was driving through Kuwait, I'd see houses with solar panels. Even in a place where there's a lot of oil, they are choosing solar."
Anguiano, who regularly visits the Department of Veterans Affairs hospital in San Francisco for help with a shoulder injury, has a SolarCity sticker on the bumper of her car and is proud that it's become a conversation starter. "The last time I went to the VA, I got flagged down by a couple of World War II veterans," she said. "They were 80-year-olds. They knew all about solar and wanted to talk to me about it."
Anguiano said her family is excited she's working in clean energy, and she's excited, too.
"It was a bumpy road to translate what I learned in the military to a civilian job," she said. "But my feeling is that if you are going to do something, you might as well do something worthwhile."