Veterans Find Jobs, and New Mission, in Cleantech

DBL Partners' portfolio companies Brightsource Energy, Tesla Motors and Solar City embody impact investing by giving veterans a new sense of mission

November 19, 2012

See the full San Jose Mer­cury News arti­cle here.

When mil­i­tary vet­er­ans search for jobs, they often want more than a pay­check. Many say they look for reward­ing work and a team of ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple focused on a com­mon mission.

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 clean­tech 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 the Mojave Desert, cour­tesy of a project super­in­ten­dent who was a Marine in Vietnam.

About 10 per­cent of Palo Alto-based Tes­la Motors (TSLA)’ glob­al work­force 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 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 clean­tech, or whether pro­por­tion­ate­ly more vet­er­ans enter clean­tech than oth­er sec­tors of the econ­o­my. But for vet­er­ans like Michael Eyman, who end­ed a 17-year Navy career in 2009, clean­tech 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 résumé to Sun­Pow­er (SPWRA), 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 résumé, 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 VA 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.”