From September 2008; Updated August 2010 (as American troops leave Iraq)
On November 13, 2001 – two months after the largest attack on domestic soil this generation has seen – Jeffrey Owens enlisted in the U.S. Army. It was shortly after his 30th birthday. “I wasn’t looking for a career, I just wanted to serve,” he recalls. He enlisted as a combat engineer and shipped overseas.
After two tours in Iraq and service in Western Europe, the Iraqi war veteran has embarked upon his third tour of duty. His mission is still focused on serving his country, and the enemy is still an insidious global threat.
But instead of fighting what many have called a war for oil, Jeffrey Owens has joined the renewable revolution. His enemies are America’s dangerous reliance on foreign oil and the devastation the liberal use of fossil fuels has wrought on the global environment.
Owens’ new mission is three-fold: first, it’s educating those who’ve not had his experience overseas on the critical nature of United States energy independence; next, it’s evangelizing the economic and environmental benefits of going solar, both here and abroad. Third, it’s earning his PhD in Physics to improve the spectrum of available solar photovoltaic and solar thermal technologies.
“I want to help develop more efficient, cheaper solar technologies,” says the 37-year-old full-time grad student, who is attending the University of Missouri with the aid of the Montgomery G.I. Bill (a Veteran’s Administration-backed program for those who’ve served overseas).
Owens’ interest in alternative energy took seed when he came to realize that it was a conflict over resources that appeared to be at the root of many of the problems in Iraq.
While serving in Iraq, Owens bore witness to murders, suicide missions and other horrifying acts of brutality surrounding efforts to 1) thwart troop advances, 2) inhibit activities to purge communities of insurgents and 3) lay claim to the oil wells in Iraq, which, of course, provide critical conduits of power to civilians and military personnel throughout the country. In many respects, the oil wells of Iraq are the coveted trophies of both insurgents and those defending the interests of Iraq.
“It is easy to cut power lines, interrupt oil pipelines and target power plants with bombs, which creates mayhem and confusion” he observed. That didn’t translate well into how Iraqis saw their American allies. “People were grateful for what we were attempting to do over there,” he says,“but the effects of the war – the bombings and insurgent attacks – were devastating to them. They would come up to me and say, ‘You represent the most powerful nation in the world, why can’t you keep our power on?’”
And that got the aspiring PhD in Physics thinking. “We’re investing a great deal of money in reconstruction over there,” reasons Owens. “This is the perfect opportunity to send a message to the rest of the world. Why don’t we invest taxpayer’s money wisely, and look at cleaner, more independent and technologically-advanced energy systems in our rebuild?”
This is a premise upon which both business and military leaders can agree, and it’s not only supportive of U.S. objectives in Iraq, but of America’s domestic and international economic interests.
Owens says he was reassured in his thinking by an article he’d read in Solar Today magazine late last year called Greening the Green Zone. It was accompanied by an article drafted by retired Chrysler executive Frank Zaski, who warned, “The Gulf War, the current Iraq war and the civil war in Sudan are but three conflicts in which securing oil rights was a key objective. Some predict we will see even more and larger conflicts as the world’s peaking oil supply is depleted. Declining sources of natural gas and uranium and the potential for misuse of nuclear energy are more sources of international tension. Renewable energy and energy efficiency are so vital to international accord that both should comprise a significant portion of international foreign aid. By including this assistance as part of the annual [multi-billion-dollar] U.S. Defense budget, we will help create jobs, stimulate economies, protect the environment, lessen nuclear proliferation and reduce pressure to secure fossil fuels.”
U.S. Army Lt. General Peter Chiarelli brings that philosophy to an even more basic level for Iraq, “Deploying additional forces [won’t ultimately] solve Iraq’s problems, but providing jobs, electricity and drinkable water [will].”
The truth is, says Owens, these are the kinds of programs that will win the hearts and minds of Iraqis. “I think that in certain areas, we’ve done a good job – our troops have performed valiantly. But at this point, we could send a very strong message and show the world that we’re there for all the right reasons by providing reliable, politically-independent power, sharing leading-edge technology that can bring them the security, economic revitalization and opportunities for self-sufficiency they seek.”
Owens is cognizant of the fact that using oil to produce electricity is currently prevalent and cheap in Iraq, which can make the idea of solar – security notwithstanding – a tough sell to some.
“Oil is a polluting fossil fuel; it’s not a renewable resource – and we need it for so much more than to power vehicles and heat our homes and offices,” he noted. “It’s used in plastics, fertilizers and more products than most Americans are aware, products that regularly enhance our quality of life. We need to be prudent with how we deplete this finite resource.”
“Think of it this way,” Owens continued, “You live in a cozy cabin adorned with a beautiful shade tree. The tree provides comforting shade, cooling both you and your home in the summer. When winter rolls around, you need wood for your fireplace to warm your family, so you chop down that tree. What do you do when summer rolls around in a couple of months? The fact is, whether your energy source is here or half-way around the world, looking for clean, renewable alternatives to heating your home is the better long-term option.”
The immense potential of these ideas motivated him to draft a letter to his then-Commander-In-Chief, President George W. Bush and administration officials volunteering his services to “Green the Green Zone,” with the use of renewable solar photovoltaic technology.
“I offered to re-enlist as a public affairs officer with the mission of deploying solar technology across the rebuild areas, in the Green Zone, or on priority military bases across the region,” said Owens, “whatever could be most useful in achieving our objectives,” he said.
The White House never responded to his letter.
Owens is undeterred. We in America, Owens suggests, may have more in common with the people in Iraq than we think. “I realize now that like us, many Iraqis subscribe to the philosophy that a man’s home is his castle. We are on their land. They are criticizing us the way we might criticize someone doing battle on our turf. There are many Iraqi citizens over there questioning our motives who are anti-American in their minds, but they’re not combative or violent people. In general, they’re trying to go about their lives, find jobs to support their families and take care of their kids. Right now, many of their days are spent simply trying to make sure their families are fed,” he noted.
Back in Missouri, Owens, has embarked upon a campaign to educate folks from the “Show Me” state how the development of markets for (and use of) photovoltaic technologies can afford people here and abroad important solutions to escalating utility bills, falling home values, alarming unemployment, environmental concerns that come with the burning of fossil fuels and Americans’ dangerous dependence on foreign sources of oil. America currently uses 25% of the world’s oil supply, but this country holds only 3% of the world’s oil reserves.
The first leg in his educational tour of duty is collaborating with colleagues at the non-profit Columbia Climate Change Coalition (C4) to participate in the 13th Annual National Solar Tour. Sponsored by the American Solar Energy Society, it’s the largest grassroots solar event in the history of the United States. The tour he is helping organize is slated for October 18, 2008.
In 2008, 115,000 people in 46 states participated in the National Solar Tour. In 2009, that number rose to 150,000 across 49 states and Puerto Rico.
Owens was inspired to join the renewable revolution in late Summer of 2006, after one of his physics professors introduced him to Al Gore’s film, An Inconvenient Truth. There he met a woman named Monta Welch and together they formed the non-profit Columbia Climate Change Coalition.
“There’s so much that’s been done in this country to bring solar energy into the mainstream, we just need to get past that tipping point,” Owens said. “It’s good when people like Al Gore and T. Boone Pickens set high bars,” he suggested. “These goals are achievable. This is America. If we put our minds to it and have the right plan of action, we can succeed.”
Just as he enlisted in the Army to do his part to defend America from the terrorists who perpetrated 9-11, he is working in the area of renewable energy to educate people about the benefits of solar, and to help develop a burgeoning domestic industry that will contribute to America’s energy independence.
“One thing I learned overseas is how fortunate we are here in the United States,” notes Owens. “But in many respects, we are still pretty insulated from the harsh realities of the rest of the world. We have one of the finest qualities of life on this planet. We have freedoms that others only dream about. We have readily available electricity to power our homes and businesses, but we’re not acting responsibly.”
“No matter where we live, there are going to be people out there who put themselves first. But,” Owens emphasizes, “living in a free society isn’t free. And it’s not free to damage the environment, or do things at the expense of your fellow man. You know I was going down that path until I saw Gore’s documentary,” said Owens. “I must admit, I’ve always considered myself to the right of Al Gore, but he’s making sense to me, particularly after my experiences in Iraq.”
He says in the case of alternative energy, Americans could stand a lesson from the Germans. “When I was stationed in Germany, I saw first-hand a standard of living completely comparable to ours, but they’re doing things so differently – so efficiently,” said Owens. Germany has the highest per capita use of solar energy in the world.
“I’m working toward my Masters with the hope that I can again be a part of the solution,” said the 37-year-old veteran. “We have important work to do, whether it’s here or as ambassadors of the better way of life energy independence can bring abroad.”
“You know Missouri is a Native American name that means ‘people of the big canoe,’” he says. “It might sound corny, but we’re all in the big canoe together. We just have to figure this stuff out.”
It’s about individuals’ wills — and society’s will. “If enough people took the time to understand the situation – and we took responsibility for ourselves and the impacts we make on this planet — we might be doing things differently,” said Owens.
When it comes to evangelizing the important realm of renewable energy, Iraqi War veteran and Individual Ready Reservist Jeffrey Owens is active duty.
UPDATE, August, 2010: Jeffrey Owens is a soldier who can humbly say “Mission Accomplished.” He received his Master’s Degree in Physics from Columbia University in May of 2009. Today he serves as Executive Director of Show Me Solar, a nonprofit cooperative focused on increasing solar education and solar living and is conducting a curriculum of online solar sessions and blogs to help people incorporate solar into their daily lives. He is coordinating solar tours in the greater St. Louis and Columbia areas.