Donald Trump says he wants to create American jobs, but he is cool to the idea of renewable energy, which he claims is “too expensive.” Don’t tell that to the US military, however. Last year, the Navy broke ground on a 4 megawatt (MW) solar array at the Naval Construction Battalion Center in Mississippi and the Army completed a large 30 MW solar array at Fort Benning, Georgia. Many soldiers deployed in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen first hand how human and economic resources are wasted to protect fossil fuel assets. After serving, they are also finding jobs in the solar industry.
As it turns out, solar power has become cheaper than fossil fuels and solar jobs have been flying through the roof — a dozen or so times faster than overall US job growth.
One such soldier is Kevin Johnson, a West Point graduate who has served in Iraq and seen first hand the ferocity of attacks on oil wells and pipelines by insurgents. “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.”
His experience led Johnson to believe that protection of fossil fuel assets would continuously put American soldiers in harm’s way. After his tour of duty, he committed himself to learning all he could about clean, renewable solar power. 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,” Johnson says. “The solar industry, specifically, provides that.” Today, almost one out of every ten veterans have found jobs in the solar industry. Many like Nat Kreamer have formed their own companies. Kreamer is chairman of Solar Energy Industries Association. He is a former Navy officer who received a Bronze Star for his service in Afghanistan. Under his leadership, the solar sector has committed to hiring 50,000 vets by 2020.
According to Think Progress, Americans are now twice as likely to be employed in the solar energy industry as in the coal industry. Last year, more than 51,000 people in the United States were hired to design, manufacture, sell, and install solar panels, according to a new report from The Solar Foundation. That means the solar industry created jobs 17 times faster than the economy as a whole. “In 2016, we saw a dramatic increase in the solar workforce across the nation, thanks to a rapid decrease in the cost of solar panels and unprecedented consumer demand for solar installations,” said Andrea Luecke, The Solar Foundation’s president and executive director.
Nick Boateng has his own story to tell. “I served in the active Army for eight years, three months and 28 days,” says 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.” His military service piqued his curiosity about solar power but it was not until he visited his ancestral home in Ghana that he became a true solar convert. While he was there, Ghana was suffering from 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,” he says. “When I went there, I noticed they were running a solar PV system.”
That inspired a dream of erecting solar installations all across Ghana, but he had no expertise in the industry. So he signed up for classes through the GI bill and managed to get a job at the Los Angeles office of GRID Alternatives, a nonprofit that performs free solar installations in economically deprived communities. “Right now, my primary job is here in California,” he says. “The project I’m working on in Ghana is a progressive thing that I am phasing in over time.” Boateng’s dream merges perfectly with pop entertainment star Akon, who is putting his fame and resources into bringing solar microgrids to parts of Africa that have never had reliable access to electricity. For more on that, see our Akon exclusives:
If Donald Trump believes the way to put Americans back to work is by having them dig coal, he is either lying to himself or the American people. Or both.