Here's a harsh truth for many military veterans: post-service employment opportunities can be hard to come by. That was the case for Nanncy Valais, who spent almost 10 years in Navy aviation administration and hoped to find civilian work in business administration. "The civilian sector is really different than the military side," she learned.
Still, there's at least one industry that serves as a bright spot for veterans: solar. Not only is solar employment growing 10 times faster than in the economy as a whole, "veterans are rising through the industry and they're advocating for other vets," explains Anna Bautista, Vice-President for Construction and Workforce Development at the non-profit solar installer GRID Alternatives. In the solar industry, veterans make up almost 10 percent of the workforce, more than their percentage in the adult population. In fact, the Solar Energy Industries Association, the main solar trade group, has pledged its member companies will hire 33,000 additional veterans by 2020, bringing the industry to a total of 50,000 vets overall.
Aaron Kness, CEO of Iowa State Bank (left) and Troy Van Beek, former Navy Seal and CEO of Ideal Energy (right) in front of the Iowa State Bank -- 4th Street Office in Fairfield, Iowa. Photo credit: Ideal Energy
What can we do to make sure solar keeps growing for veterans?
"The renewal of the solar investment tax credit is pivotal to making SEIA's plan to hire 50,000 vets a reality," explains John Handy, Federal Business Development Manager at California-based REC Solar, who retired from the military after 32 years of service. "The solar ITC helps the solar industry as it helps with solar employment."
The ITC offers a 30 percent federal tax credit for solar projects nationwide. (That's right: in states with good solar policies and states with crappy ones, too.) It's been credited with much of solar's exponential growth in recent years, helping to bring a huge amount of solar power online, speeding economies of scale and spurring technological innovation. And it's helped make solar a huge job generator, with industry jobs growing from 93,000 in 2010 to 174,000 in 2014. Last year, one out of every 78 new jobs in the US was a solar job.
The problem with the ITC--and it's not a problem with the ITC itself--is that it's set to expire at the end of next year, while fossil-fuel subsidies are written into the nation's permanent tax code. But the ITC can be extended, and should be, if Congress chooses to include it and other clean energy tax incentives in a package of so-called tax extenders it will take up after the Thanksgiving recess.
Veterans working in solar are creating an abundance of resources
Which can make life better for our veterans. "Solar ends up being a fabulous environment for veterans," says Chris Wolfe, a North Carolina former tank gunner and "fifth-generation military guy" who now works as a construction superintendent for Chapel Hill-based Strata Solar. "We know how to lead, how to communicate, how to get things done."
Many vets in the solar industry see their work as a continuation of their service to our country and a contribution to the national defense. "Wars are generally fought over resources, such as energy resources, and with solar, we're creating an abundance of resources," explains Troy Van Beek, a former Navy Seal and CEO of Ideal Energy, in Fairfield, Iowa. He credits the military with some of his company's success. "I've been fortunate to get training through the military and it's really helped in building our company." Ideal now supports more than 30 employees, including four vets besides Van Beek, "and seems to grow daily."
The military, for its part, recognizes the opportunities the solar industry offers departing service members. With Congressional help, it will soon expand its Solar Ready Vets training program, which offers four to six weeks of solar training to exiting service members, from three bases to 10. To date, more than 100 service members have gone through the training and each one has been offered at least one solar job.
Nanncy Valais is now training in solar as an intern at GRID Alternatives, which uses volunteers and trainees like her to install solar on the homes of low-income Americans. (With help from Wells Fargo, GRID intends to train 1,000 veterans over the next three years.) Valais and other vets NRDC has interviewed believe extending the solar ITC is key to the success of their industry and the veterans in it. "Our government spends an enormous amount of money on things that make no difference in people's lives," says Chris Wolfe. "Solar makes a difference."