President Barack Obama unveiled a plan Friday to put U.S. military veterans to work in the solar energy sector. The initiative will help train thousands of former service members to install, operate and develop solar technologies at a time when the nation's renewable energy industry is booming.
“We’ve got to be relentless in our work to grow the economy and create new jobs,” Obama said in front of rows of solar panels at the Hill Air Force Base in Utah. “We’ve got to lead by example, invest in the future and train our workers to get jobs in the clean energy economy.”
The solar industry is among the fastest-growing sectors in the country, with companies adding workers at a rate nearly 20 times faster than the overall economy in the past year, according to the industry’s latest solar jobs report. Homeowners, businesses and government agencies are installing rooftop and large-scale solar systems at a dramatic clip, in an effort to reduce harmful carbon dioxide emissions or take advantage of plunging solar prices. Solar companies installed a record 6,200 megawatts of photovoltaic capacity last year, a 30 percent jump over the previous year, the industry says.
“Our investments in renewable energy and energy efficiency haven’t just helped to cut carbon pollution,” Obama said. “They’ve helped us to create a steady stream of high-wage, good-paying jobs.”
Under the new Solar Ready Vets program, the departments of Energy and Defense will launch solar training programs at 10 military bases across the country, including at the Hill Air Force base. Pilot programs are already underway at Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Carson in Colorado and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia. To help veterans pay for solar training off-base, the Department of Veterans Affairs will work to expand its GI Bill program to include training courses at community colleges, the president said.
Obama’s solar push will also help fulfill the Department of Energy’s new goal to train 75,000 people to enter the solar workforce by 2020. An earlier goal sought to train 50,000 solar workers by the same year. Nationwide, the solar sector employs nearly 174,000 people -- twice the number of people who work in the U.S. coal industry, the jobs report found.
The Friday announcement comes just days after the Obama administration introduced a blueprint for cutting U.S. greenhouse gas emissions by nearly a third over the next decade.
The president’s plan is part of the broader global effort by nearly 200 nations to develop individual strategies for fighting climate change. The countries are expected to submit their plans to the United Nations ahead of a climate conference in Paris this December. Slashing America’s emissions to such a degree will require boosting development of renewable energy and reducing reliance on electricity and fuel from coal, oil and natural gas, climate experts say.
Yet despite the country’s dramatic solar gains, sun power provided only about 0.44 percent of net U.S. electricity generation in 2014, according to the Energy Information Administration. Among other renewable sources, wind energy accounted for about 4.4 percent of net electricity, while biomass and geothermal energy respectively made up 1.6 percent and 0.39 percent of last year’s total.