About 20 percent of the roughly 800 workers currently constructing First Solar’s 550 megawatt Topaz Solar Farm in San Luis Obispo County, Calif., 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 clean tech, or whether proportionately more veterans enter clean tech than other sectors of the economy. But for veterans like Michael Eyman, who ended a 17-year Navy career in 2009, clean tech 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 resume to SunPower, 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.