Kevin Johnson graduated from West Point at an inauspicious time, shortly after September 11th, just as the United States was launching simultaneous wars on the far side of the globe.
In 2004, Johnson was deployed to Bayji, the oil-refining capital of Iraq. Pipelines, stretched across the region like arteries, carried crude oil to refineries in the heart of the country, where it was processed before being shipped south for export.
Bayji’s oil facilities were a frequent target for insurgents. Johnson served in the heat of oil fires that erupted from routine attacks on pipelines and processing equipment.
“For me, that was a key wake-up call,” Johnson said. “You have 100 soldiers asking you every day what we’re doing there, and it was hard not to see the combination of the economy of Iraq being based on oil exports and the attacks there on the infrastructure.”
The experience clarified the U.S. strategic interest in the Middle East and its endless presence in the conflict-prone region. Johnson believed America’s addiction to fossil fuels would continually put U.S. troops in harm’s way. After he left the Army, he pledged to tackle the energy problem.
For Johnson, that meant working in solar, an inexhaustible source of power for homes, factories and electric vehicles. Now he runs CleanCapital, a renewable-energy investment firm he founded with, among other partners, a fellow Army veteran.
“The most challenging thing for veterans is that transition process and finding that same level of mission-driven culture in their professional careers,” he said. “The solar industry, specifically, provides that.”
Nearly one in 10 solar workers are veterans, and many, like Johnson, are industry leaders, having founded their own companies. Nat Kreamer, chairman of the Solar Energy Industries Association is a former Navy officer who earned a Bronze Star while serving in Afghanistan. Under his leadership, the solar sector has committed to hiring 50,000 vets by 2020.
The ranks of solar firms are filled with men and women like Kreamer and Johnson, veterans who guarded Army fuel convoys in Afghanistan, or served aboard Navy destroyers that kept international shipping lanes safe for oil tankers.
“I served in the active Army for eight years, three months and 28 days,” said Nick Boateng, a veteran now working in solar. “From the experiences that I had, I noticed that one of the main reasons we were fighting these conflicts was resources.”
Boateng talked about the lives lost or ruined in conflicts overseas. He recounted veterans wounded physically and psychologically by war, and the high price paid by their families.
“The first time I came upon a blown-up vehicle, and there was burning flesh — that stuff never goes away,” he said. “War destroys people’s lives.”
If it was Boateng’s years in the Army that inspired his doubts about fossil fuels, it was a trip to Ghana, his country of birth, that made him a solar convert. During his visit, Ghana was beset by rolling blackouts, but Boateng discovered one home that managed to keep its lights on.
“I was curious how that house wasn’t running a generator but still had electricity,” Boateng said. “When I went there, I noticed they were running a solar PV system.”
Boateng dreamed of erecting solar arrays all over Ghana, but he knew almost nothing about the industry. So, he signed up for classes through the GI bill and snagged a job at the Los Angeles office of GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that performs free solar installations in depressed communities.
“Right now, my primary job is here in California,” he said. “The project I’m working on in Ghana is a progressive thing that I am phasing in over time.”
These days, most service members don’t need to fly overseas to see solar power at work. As part of an ambitious plan to rein in consumption of costly and dangerous fossil fuels, the Pentagon is installing solar facilities at bases all over the country. Last year, for example, the Navy broke ground on a 4 MW solar array at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Mississippi, and the Army unveiled a titanic 30 MW solar array at Fort Benning in Georgia.
Now, every soldier who attends Ranger School or Airborne School at Fort Benning will see that photovoltaic solar offers a secure and reliable form of power. A few of those soldiers may end up working in the field. Clean-energy firms have opened their doors to veterans, some of whom struggle to find a job and adapt to civilian life after leaving the service.
“My transition out of the military was a little rough,” said Frank Reichert, a former Navy mechanic. “I went to the shipyards saying, ‘Hey, I was a gas turbine tech.’ They didn’t care that I worked on gas turbines for 15 years… Everywhere I went, there was always something that I needed that I never had, even though I could probably do the job.”
Eventually, Reichert landed a position with Invenergy, where he now works as a solar and battery storage field engineer. He said the energy sector is full of veterans eager to hire departing service members.
“A lot of people in the solar industry are ex-military. Tons of us,” he said. “You have opportunity. You have people that want to give somebody a shot.”
Things have gotten easier since Reichert left the Navy in 2008. Since 2014, the Solar Foundation has partnered with the Department of Energy and the Department of Defense on Solar Ready Vets, a program to train service members for careers in solar and find them jobs in the field.
“That’s really the first outlet that I’ve ever seen that’s saying, ‘Hey, let me take you before you get out of the military. Here’s an option that you have, and let’s do some job placement, and now you have a certificate saying, I’m certified to be a solar installer,’” said Reichert. “I would have loved to have had something like that when I got out of the military.”
Solar Ready Vets is also a boon for employers, who describe veterans as disciplined, meticulous and trustworthy. But, the program may be in peril. President Trump has promised deep cuts at the Department of Energy, and the veteran jobs program could be on the chopping block.
Across the board, veterans noted that smart policy is key to creating opportunities in solar — not just Solar Ready Vets, but the tax credits and renewable energy mandates that have helped spur the growth of the industry.
Revenue from California’s carbon trading program is funding the work of GRID Alternatives, where Boateng works. The organization provides solar panels to struggling families. For these projects, Boateng recruits military veterans as volunteer installers and provides them with hands-on training in solar.
State-level programs like this will prove indispensable in the years ahead. Trump has stacked his administration with fossil fuel insiders and proposed a slate of federal policies that would stifle the clean-energy boom. The solar industry will be on rocky terrain for at least the next four years.
Johnson, for one, isn’t worried: “There’s a saying in the military — no plan survives the first gun shot.” He said the key on the battlefield — and in business — is adaptability. Veterans are highly adaptable, and they will keep working to drive the growth of U.S. solar, even in the face of new and unforeseen challenges.
“Folks that are involved in solar are extremely passionate,” said Johnson. “They understand the difficulties. And veterans are tremendous in that role.”