Credit: Ken Oltmann / U.S. Department of Energy

Some veterans are on a new mission to bring more of their colleagues into the clean energy workforce.

Kevin Johnson served as a captain in the U.S. Army and spent a year stationed in Baiji, Iraq, home to a major oil refinery. The war made clear to him the world’s dependence on fossil fuels. 

Johnson was stationed “at the heart of the oil infrastructure in Iraq,” he said, “watching the infrastructure being attacked on a daily basis and having my soldiers ask me, ‘When are we going home?’” 

That was the genesis of Johnson’s career in clean energy. 

“I knew that when I got out that I wanted to be on the other side of that fight,” he told the Energy News Network. 

In 2015, Johnson and several colleagues — including one from the Army — founded CleanCapital, a New York firm that acquires and manages clean energy projects on behalf of investors. Johnson also worked with several other clean energy companies over the past decade. Today he leads the federal solutions segment of suburban Chicago-based GlidePath, a renewable energy and storage developer that works with government agencies, mainly the Department of Defense, to develop and build energy storage throughout the country.

Veterans like Johnson make up a disproportionate segment of the clean (or advanced) energy workforce compared to their presence in the overall economy, according to the 2019 U.S. Energy & Employment Report, published by the Energy Futures Initiative and the National Association of State Energy Officials. The study found that veterans filled about 10% of the nation’s advanced energy jobs, compared to 6% of total jobs.

However, veterans are also disproportionately represented in fossil fuel-related jobs, the same study shows. Those jobs could be at risk as fossil fuels are replaced by alternative energy sources. But as clean energy becomes more economical and the industry grows, many industry members say veterans can leverage technical skills they honed in the service and contribute to a sector with increasing professional opportunities.

The role of energy in national security

In general, transitioning to civilian careers can be difficult for veterans. Prospective employers don’t always understand the skills they bring, and veterans often don’t have the training to communicate those skills. And while military service often involves energy work, that tends to be more focused on petroleum and nuclear than on renewables. Major oil and gas companies may also have more sway with veterans than small renewable companies, creating potential challenges in drawing veterans to clean energy jobs.

Dan Misch, another Chicago-area veteran, has made this his post-military mission. He is dedicated to bringing more veterans into the clean energy sector, including through the Veterans Advanced Energy Summit. He hosted the third annual summit in Chicago in August with backing from the Atlantic Council, Exelon, Invenergy and several military and foreign policy heavy-hitters. 

The Aug. 13 event featured commentary about fossil fuels’ role in driving war, instability and terrorism, and called on veterans to help forge a new path. Industry professionals, including Johnson, shared how they’ve brought their skills from the service into the clean energy sector.

Misch crafted the summit to mirror a training he received from the State Department regarding energy security and energy diplomacy.

“I realized that was a great format that other veterans would benefit from as well, especially as they’re getting out of the military and making decisions about their careers,” he said. “If we can educate veterans about how the energy industry is connected to national security, it will motivate them to pursue energy careers.”

Misch is now a nonresident senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, a Washington, D.C.-based think tank on international affairs. He studied physics at the Naval Academy and trained as a nuclear submarine operator, assuming he’d later work at a nuclear power plant. 

“But then I started learning more about climate change, and was not sure how I felt about nuclear,” he said. 

While the Chicago summit featured speakers describing the role of energy in geopolitics, the majority of clean energy jobs have more to do with domestic electricity generation and conservation than with foreign policy and intrigue. 

Misch hopes understanding the role of energy in national security will inspire veterans to work in various parts of the advanced energy sector. Jobs related to wind and solar installation and energy efficiency could offer a less glamorous but arguably more rewarding mission: contributing to cleaner air and lower bills in the communities where vets live. 

“While we are at all-time low unemployment for military veterans, underemployment continues to be a big problem — that is, being underutilized, overqualified, or unfulfilled,” Misch said. “Understanding how a job in clean energy is contributing to our energy security can help a veteran feel good about going to work every day.”

When Jon Gensler, a former U.S. Army officer, moved to Nashville, Tennessee, he found that homes were built with little attention to energy efficiency, and that advocates seemed to focus on larger climate- or energy-related issues rather than homeowners’ needs. 

“I thought we could do a better job,” Gensler said during a panel at the veterans summit. So in 2017, he founded Revive Energy to partner with Tennessee homeowners and builders to make their homes energy efficient.

Less than two years in, Gensler said, “it’s nothing but knocks to the head alternated with, hopefully, delivering some body blows to an industry that needs body blows as well.” 

Serving in the army helped prepare him for the constant uncertainty that starting a new venture brings, he said.

Misch similarly emphasized that the military imbues veterans with social and logistical skills that — aside from technological know-how — are conducive to clean energy jobs. He added that the advanced energy sector is also often a good option for military spouses, who may struggle to establish their own careers since they are constantly moving and dealing with spouses’ deployments. 

The numbers 

Veterans account for about 8% to 11% of the approximately 9.2 million jobs in the U.S. energy sector, while they make up 6% of the U.S. workforce overall, according to the Energy & Employment Report.

Veterans account for 9% of jobs in solar photovoltaic, 8% in natural gas and 7% in coal, the report says. But in his analysis of the report, Misch found that the fossil fuel and nuclear sectors hired more veterans last year than the solar and wind industries. That’s the “opposite of a trend that I would have wanted to see,” he said. According to the report, veterans represent 6% of jobs in the nuclear sector, the same as their national representation.

In a commentary for the Energy News Network following the report’s release, Misch wrote that electric power generation jobs decreased by 1% in 2018, including a loss of 8,000 veteran jobs. Part of this had to do with losses in the solar and hydroelectric power sectors, he said, while veteran representation in the wind sector stayed the same despite the sector’s growth overall, and natural gas and nuclear generation each added jobs for veterans.

The 2019 Clean Jobs Midwest survey, sponsored by nonprofit investor Clean Energy Trust, gives a state-by-state breakdown of veteran representation in the region. In Illinois, for example, 10% of the state’s clean energy workforce is veterans, while in neighboring Indiana, it’s 12.5%. The other Midwest states are generally in that range.

As Misch pointed out in a separate analysis of the Midwest survey, energy efficiency is by far the biggest portion of the clean energy industry, with more than 50,000 Midwest veterans estimated in the sector compared with about 7,500 estimated in renewables like wind and solar.

“Over half of the energy efficiency jobs are in construction which makes the construction industry the surprising driving factor behind veteran employment in clean energy,” he wrote. “States with the fastest growing construction industries are more likely to employ veterans in clean energy.”

Clean Energy Leadership

Johnson, the CleanCapital founder, is also on the board of the Clean Energy Leadership Institute (CELI), a professional development organization that runs a fellowship program offering training for advocacy and entrepreneurship — for example, helping people develop business pitches for startups.

CELI runs five-month fellowships, as well as one-day clean energy “101” policy workshops, in Washington, D.C., and San Francisco. During the veterans summit, the group’s leaders announced CELI will be expanding to Chicago in 2020; applications are open now for a fellowship beginning in March.

While fellows most often come from professional clean energy work, including government policy and private development, the organization’s administrators are increasingly looking for professionals from other sectors, said Becca Ward, CELI’s senior director. This includes veterans, who she said bring a unique perspective to the industry.

In addition to their national security knowledge, veterans often understand the processes by which energy is procured and transported. “That is a constituency that we would love to work with,” she said.

Ward said Chicago seemed like the ideal choice for expansion: For example, the city’s metropolitan area ranked third in the clean energy advocacy group E2’s 2018 Clean Jobs Cities report, and legislation like the Future Energy Jobs Act shows the state is making progress on the policy front. “There seems to be an opportunity for an organization like CELI to come in and help try to connect the different things that are happening here,” Ward said. 

Making connections is a personal mission for James Flagg, an Army veteran who connects veterans to job opportunities for CEDA, the Chicago-area agency that runs low-income heating and cooling assistance, weatherization and other programs. Flagg was training in Louisiana and about to be deployed to Iraq when Hurricane Katrina hit, and the deployment was canceled. After his service ended in 2009, Flagg started an organization helping veterans transition to civilian life.

“I see a lot of my counterparts in the Navy, Army and Air Force utilizing those skills they had on the battlefield and incorporating into their day-to-day work,” he said. “The management, the leadership, respectfulness, being prompt and on time — those are skills ingrained in us in the military.”

Flagg had a close encounter with one of the seminal, climate change-related events of the 21st century, but it wasn’t until he was at CEDA that he became fascinated with energy and its role in curbing climate change. 

“A lot of my work at CEDA is the same job I did in the military — finding resources and opportunities I can bring back to the unit to help us move forward,” Flagg said. “I genuinely love my job, learning new things. Clean energy, renewable energy is where the world and technology should be going. This is extremely important for me professionally and personally.”

Solar Ready Vets

In 2014, the Department of Energy began a program called Solar Ready Vets, in which exiting veterans stationed at U.S. military bases received training to help them prepare for work in solar photovoltaic installation, sales, management and other related positions. The department graduated 526 students between 2014 and 2017, when the program ended.

As of 2017, 52% of the graduates tracked had gone into a solar career or continued with related education, according to Avery Palmer, a spokesperson for the Solar Foundation, which administered the program from 2016 to 2017.

Now, the foundation is launching a new program with the support of a $2 million Department of Energy grant. “Going beyond installation training, this program is designed to provide a range of solar industry education and employment opportunities to transitioning service members and veterans,” Palmer said.

In addition to training, administrators plan to connect veterans to credentialing and professional development opportunities in high demand markets, Palmer said. 

According to Palmer, “We have long recognized that military veterans can be outstanding candidates for solar careers, based on the experience, technical knowledge and leadership skills they acquire in the Armed Forces.”

Soldiers’ military training regimen gives them “an appreciation for guidelines and safety and responsibility” that many people who go directly to college from high school don’t have, added Nathan Johnson, an assistant professor at Arizona State University who leads the university’s Laboratory for Energy and Power Solutions, which offers microgrid and other trainings for student veterans. 

“That innate capability and skill set that they gain provides extreme value to an industry that’s as critical as electricity,” he said.