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.”