Solar Industry Employs A Surprisingly High Percentage Of America’s Veterans

CREDIT: AP Photo / Kantele Franko

Veteran Ben Noland works on a solar panel installation in Dublin, Ohio.

According to a new report, American veterans constitute 9.2 percent of all workers in the nation’s solar industry, versus just 7.6 percent of all workers in the nation. According to the researchers, this singles out the solar industry as a growing opportunity for veterans’ employment.

The numbers were put together by the Solar Foundation, a nonprofit group that funds solar energy research, education, and outreach. The raw number of veterans employed by industry is admittedly small: 13,192 versus over one million Iraq and Afghanistan war veterans in the workforce as a whole. But total employment in the solar industry grew by 20 percent just from 2012 to 2013, and by 53 percent from 2010 to 2013. That growth far outpaced other industries, marking solar as a sector who’s full potential to provide veterans with employment has yet to be felt.

And jobs for veterans are in need of attention. The report found that veterans age 18 to 24 — those most likely to have gained skills from the military’s recent embrace of renewable energy — have an unemployment rate of 16 percent. Among Americans as a whole age 18 to 24, the unemployment rate is only 11 percent.

That high-level shift toward renewable power in the military’s strategy has been going on for several years. The more solar can be used to power outposts and foreword operating bases, for example, the less liquid fuel has to shipped out to power the generators. That leaves supply lines less weighed down by cargo and less vulnerable to attack, and it cuts costs — NPR reported that just running air conditioning for American soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan cost $20 billion per year.

And if larger and more established basis can cut their fossil fuel use by generating their own renewable power as well, that leaves the military both more cost-effective and less vulnerable to price fluctuations in the oil market.

On the individual level, soldiers have embraced thin-film solar technology that can be attached directly to laptops, communication devices, and other electronics, and even adopted roll-up solar panels that can be carried and laid out like place-mats at the dinner table. Again, that means less need for soldiers to cart around generators, canisters of fuel, or batteries, all of which can be heavy and cumbersome.

The Solar Foundation’s report also noted that the US military had installed over 180 megawatts of solar capacity at its various bases as of early 2013. And the Defense Department has a mandate to get 25 percent of all its power from renewables by 2025.

The result of this shift is more and more soldiers are closing out their time in the military with a high level of skills and experience in solar technology, which can then be brought to bear in the private sector. Scholarship programs have even begun popping up to support current and former soldiers who wish to work in solar in the private sector.

The report found that 39 percent of veterans in the solar workforce are involved in installation and maintenance, 27 percent are in manufacturing, 14 percent in sales and distribution, and 6 percent in project development.

Beyond opportunities for military veterans, studies show that solar and other green jobs are more accessible to Americans without a college degree compared to the jobs market as a whole; that industries boasting a high number of green jobs weathered the 2008 recession better; and that growth in green jobs as a percentage of an industry correlates with overall increases in employment for that industry.