Huntsville, Alabama is teeming with engineers and STEM talent. Some are leaving the defense economy for the clean energy one.
This story was published in partnership with Reckon.
Robert Yost remembers the 2011 Alabama tornadoes vividly. Sixty-two hit the state on just one April day, killing more than 200 people and leaving behind nearly 700 miles of damage. Several hit Huntsville and tore up transmission lines to the Tennessee Valley Authority’s Browns Ferry Nuclear Plant — which the city relies on for energy — then littered them back on the ground in tangled piles. The city, a military-industrial hub so packed with defense contractors that it’s wryly dubbed “the Pentagon of the South,” went dark. Roads were impassable.
Yost, a mechanical engineer, had accumulated a wealth of technical expertise during decades working across the defense, oil and gas, and logistics sectors. His career began in the 1970s manufacturing the rock bits used in the oil industry. He later designed military aircraft and the wings of Tomahawk cruise missiles. By the time the tornadoes hit, he ran a software engineering firm in Huntsville.
After the storms passed, neighbors came together, chainsaws in hand, to clear the streets. Yost’s son, Dan, and his fraternity brothers hooked cars to downed trees to drag them off the road and trekked through debris to search for stranded people and pets. A man came by their house to ask if Yost had any valves or faucets on hand to improvise a shower. Of course, Yost said — an ever-tinkering engineer, he had a garage full of spare parts.
During the blackout, Yost’s wife looked at a pedestal fan with blades gently turning in the wind. “Why can’t you generate electricity from something like that?” she asked him.
The question vaulted him toward yet another career twist, this time into renewable energy. Drawing from his work experience, Yost realized a wind turbine could be rebuilt in a way that looked less like an airplane propeller and more like a jet engine. In 2012, he launched his company American Wind with a flagship product called the Microcube, a shoebox-sized turbine that captures wind energy next to whatever needs to use it, eliminating the need for long transmission lines. Stacked together, the Microcubes become an Advanced WindWall, capable of meeting the daily energy needs of about three average American households. Yost also patented a generator that rotates with less friction than traditional ones, allowing it to work with wind speeds as low as a mile-and-a-half per hour.
His sense of purpose overshadows any hesitancy about leaving decades of steady work for a startup. “I felt this was God’s decision for me to go do this,” Yost said, “and He had been preparing me throughout my entire career with all these different job changes to get me to where I needed to be to build this technology.”
His transition to renewables is one that other skilled technical workers in Huntsville are making too — one which has the potential to transform two shaky pillars of the American economy, the defense and energy industries.
For decades, anti-war voices have called for “economic conversion” of the military-industrial complex, a bid to shift the the United States’ goliath defense budget — higher than that of the next top ten countries combined — away from weapons and overseas wars towards something more sustainable. It’s similar to a concept environmental and labor groups have long championed called “just transition” to create post-fossil fuel economies that prioritize workers’ rights.
Both movements address a labor obstacle at the heart of the stubborn persistence of arms spending and fossil fuels in the American way of life: To become a cleaner peacetime economy, the U.S. needs to harness and repurpose workers’ skills. And in a year that has brought a global pandemic, an escalating financial crisis, and a presidential election, the case for an economic conversion in Huntsville and other military-dependent communities is growing stronger. Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden announced a massive clean energy jobs plan, and the renewable energy economy is growing in Southern states. Oil prices plummeted in the wake of worldwide shutdowns, and more coal companies filed for bankruptcy. Defense workers voiced discontent with poor workplace safety standards revealed during the pandemic — a rare moment of public dissent in a workforce seen as a key constituency by elected officials of both parties.
Yost said putting aside the industry “dogma” that leads workers to drill down into what they already know how to do, rather than explore new areas for innovation, would open the way for more people to make transitions to industries that promote resilience and preparedness for disasters like the tornadoes.
“There’s too much closed-mindedness,” he said. “Let’s take the blinders off and say, OK, what can we do? Let’s experiment on how to do things better.”
Huntsville is a verdant valley town cradled by the Tennessee River. Its metro region has the highest concentration of engineers and the second highest concentration of STEM workers nationwide, according to its chamber of commerce. The talent is largely funneled into defense and aerospace, and the Huntsville region ranks in the top ten locations in the U.S. that receive the most Pentagon contracts — more than $7 billion worth in 2019. Much of that is spent on the area’s speciality products: things that go boom, from the Atlas V rocket used in the inaugural launch of the military’s new Space Force to the new inter-continental ballistic missiles the U.S. military is ordering to restock silos across the American West with weapons that threaten nuclear attacks on far-off adversaries.
Andy Woloszyn, who ran for mayor of the city on a progressive platform this year, said alarmed newcomers have to be warned that explosions are just part of the urban soundtrack due to the adjacent Army arsenal. Having friends who can’t talk about their day job is also routine. “If you go out socially, and you go out to a bar or something and meet some friends and they introduce you to people,” he said, “every other person you meet has a security clearance.”
Woloszyn’s grassroots challenge to a long-term incumbent received just 10% of the vote, but he is one of many locals pushing Huntsville to become a more sustainable, clean city. He was supported by local environmental groups who lobbied the city government to establish a sustainability commission, and he imagines further transformation taking place by building on the city’s history of science and technology innovation for smart urban upgrades that improve locals’ quality of life, like revamping the city’s public transit system. These strategies aren’t just part of the progressive agenda: Economic diversification is also an official goal of the Republican city leadership in Huntsville.
In fact, the Pentagon itself has a division, the Office of Economic Adjustment (OEA), that is tasked with advising towns across the U.S. on how to make such transitions when they face downward turns in military spending, such as when a military base closes or defense contracts dry up. While large-scale moves are not yet common, some promising examples exist, such as the 1994 conversion of San Francisco’s Presidio, a former army fort, into a popular public park with mixed-use cultural, commercial, and residential space, and several green and infrastructure firms that have cropped up at the site of a Philadelphia naval shipyard shuttered in 1995.
Political will is holding back more transitions like these. Miriam Pemberton, a research fellow at the Institute for Policy Studies, a progressive think tank, who is writing a book about economic conversion, said the Pentagon’s OEA faces scrutiny from lawmakers who ask, “What’s in it for the warfighter?” It’s unlikely the agency would push a clean energy agenda, she added.
OEA director Patrick O’Brien said the office will “typically equip anyone that’s being affected to look at all offers, options, opportunities, look at what is being funded out there by other federal agencies, look at what the tax code might support” to decide on what new industries may work. In an email, an OEA representative said the office did not know of any examples of communities that responded to spending reductions due to the 2011 Budget Control Act with a renewable energy or green tech reorientation.
But there is plenty of potential for such transitions in the South. North Carolina for instance, is home to Fort Bragg, the largest U.S. military base in the world and is also the second-highest state in the nation for installed solar capacity. Pemberton said if towns and businesses see the government choosing to shift spending from the military to the green economy, “they would move. They follow the money.”
The defense industry draws from the same labor pool of technical workers that the clean energy and infrastructure sectors do, economist Heidi Peltier wrote in a recent paper for Brown University. But there’s a catch: Defense contractors can pay far better due to their “extreme profitability” that distorts the labor market, she said. For example, the average salary for a mechanical engineer at Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest weapons maker and the largest corporate recipient of U.S. taxpayer money, is about $125,000, while the median salary for mechanical engineers across all industries is $87,370, according to Peltier.
Elected officials tout the defense industry’s job creation. Yet despite ever-increasing military budgets, overall employment in the defense industry dropped from 3.2 million in 1985 to an estimated 1.1 million in 2019, according to the National Defense Industrial Association. Peltier calculated that for several reasons — including the capital-intensive nature of the industry, meaning less money goes straight to salaries — military spending is one of the poorest ways to create jobs. For every $1 million invested by the government, the defense industry creates 6.9 jobs. The same amount invested in clean energy creates 9.8 jobs.
The military-industrial job market still plays an outsize role in defense communities across the U.S., including Huntsville. The anchor of its military economy, the Redstone Arsenal, was built in 1941 and supplied troops with munitions during World War II, part of a wartime industry bolstered by the New Deal-era Tennessee Valley Authority that powered the region’s economy. The city’s ascent as a technology and innovation hub dates back to the bold and morally fraught Operation Paperclip, a secret post-war program to bring scientists from Nazi Germany to the U.S., which believed it was in a race with the Soviet Union to seize experienced weapons-makers.
Among the most prominent of these scientists was Dr. Wernher von Braun, who helped develop a German ballistic missile seen as the precursor to similar American and Soviet weapons. In Huntsville, von Braun was chief architect of the launch vehicle used in the Apollo mission that took Americans to the moon. He also lobbied for the University of Alabama in Huntsville’s (UAH) expansion; the city’s largest public university is now a pipeline into the military economy.
More than a fifth of UAH graduates between 2018 and 2019 took jobs in defense, according to the school’s career services office. Four of the top five employers of UAH graduates in the same year were defense contractors. The school’s landscape blends into the bright green lawns of the adjacent Cummings Research Park, home to jumbo-sized offices for many of those employers.
Hernando Gonzalez, a UAH Ph.D candidate, may veer off that well-worn path. He graduated college in the aftermath of the 2008 Great Recession but soon found lucrative work with an oil services company that produced tubes used in rigs that went as deep as 12,000 feet underground. By 26, he managed a department with 127 employees, and was able to provide financial support to his parents and sister.
But being an industry insider also exposed him to its rawer parts. Flying in a helicopter toward a drilling site in the Amazon, he watched the scenery radically change into what looked like a desert. “Nice, wide vegetation, beautiful vegetation and beautiful rivers” turned into “acres and acres of destruction,” he said.
“I don’t think this is the future,” he added. “And I don’t feel this is a story that I want to be part of and then tell my kids: Hey, this is what I did. Like, I was helping to destroy the world.”
A professor pointed him toward a graduate program at UAH. Now, he’s researching the microstructures of batteries in the hopes of finding ways to store renewable energy.
The infrastructure that funnels workers into the defense industry can also equip them for work in renewables, said UAH engineering graduate Natalie Click. “More than likely you’re going to be using a lot of the same software, a lot of the same coding languages and a lot of the same problem-solving processes,” she said.
Click grew up surrounded by the defense industry workforce, which included her father, in Melbourne, Florida. She saw how the conflict-driven fluctuations in military spending could upend families’ livelihoods and thinks the renewable energy market will be a more reliable one. “It’s not quite as much of a roller coaster,” she said. “It’s more of just a gradual increase, like a positive slope.”
Now a doctoral student at Arizona State University, Click is researching how to recycle solar panel parts when their life spans end, rather than throw solar waste in the landfill. Research shows this recycling could be a multibillion-dollar industry. “Think about all the jobs that you could potentially have,” she said, “because it will take a special type of workforce in order to actually recycle these panels.”
Woloszyn, the former mayoral candidate, imagines an environmental employment program that would harness Huntsville’s “super-smart, well-equipped students” after graduation for urban upgrades like improving the city’s recycling program, installing solar capacity, creating a compost program to use in regional farms, and expanding its public transit so that catching a bus would be an appealing way to get out to meet friends.
He compares his vision to green projects he sees underway in other midsize cities like Little Rock, Ark., and Syracuse, N.Y. , such as switching public agencies to electric and hybrid vehicles and installing solar farms in rural areas. “But we can be more ambitious than they are if we have these resources at hand,” he said.
When UAH physics and earth science graduate Ankur Shah held a Green New Deal town hall with about 50 attendees at UAH last year, he hoped to communicate the science of climate change to show that a green jobs economy “just makes sense.” The next U.S. president will have an urgent responsibility to rebuild a post-COVID-19 pandemic economy, and an unprecedented opportunity to catalyze the creation of such a workforce.
Economic diversification is popular with officials on both sides of the aisle, and, in a recent poll, a majority of both Democratic and Republican voters said they support cutting the Pentagon’s budget to pay for domestic priorities. Meanwhile, utility companies, city governments, and rural communities throughout the U.S. South are vowing to cut carbon emissions and increase spending on renewables as the coal industry continues to rapidly decline. Such changes could be a boon for ambitious startups like American Wind and the solar recycling program Click studies. A major infrastructure bill to upgrade and transform the buildings, roads, vehicles and energy sources Americans rely on, such as the one in the Biden-Harris platform, would be a hit among the manufacturing unions prominent in the defense industry, according to Pemberton.
While Shah was seeking to make the case for a new kind of economy to the town hall, he had something of a secret weapon to back him up. That was a guest speaker whose name carries towering influence in Huntsville: Dr. Margrit von Braun, an environmental engineer specialized in hazardous waste cleanup and the daughter of rocket scientist von Braun. She co-founded a nonprofit that works in developing countries to reduce locals’ exposure to hazardous industries such as mining.
Shah said von Braun told the gathering that her father helped send Americans into space, giving them the vantage point to look back down at Earth. Doing so showed that “we have finite resources, we need to protect it,” Shah said.
It starts with transitions like Yost’s. His success at American Wind has created one company attracting enthusiastic newcomers to renewables. He doesn’t need to spend much on recruiting staff. “They came to us,” he said. Their manufacturing is led by a military veteran who was previously a project manager at Raytheon, and the vice president for sales came from the Army Corps of Engineers.
Military scouts also found him: His product was used in a training in Thailand and a special forces demonstration in Indiana that mimicked a disaster zone caused by an explosion. For three days, participants used their wind turbines to recharge equipment like night-vision goggles. American Wind is also in talks with fast food restaurants interested in their wind walls.
Dan Yost, Robert’s son and the company’s vice president for marketing, said he learns from employees’ military experience and that he imagines workers young and old side-by-side as the company grows. His uncle, for instance, had little formal education but frequently lives with his family for several months at a time, so the Yosts decided to train him on the shop floor. “He’s 70 years old and it took us 45 minutes to teach him this,” said Dan.
“This is something our politicians miss. It’s not about getting rid of jobs,” Dan said of the transition to renewables. “It’s about transforming the workforce.”
Taylor Barnes is an Atlanta-based journalist who covers the defense industry.
This story was supported by the Solutions Journalism Network.