Westlake, Fla. - A trio of U.S. veterans, each with a unique story from his fight to defend American independence, unite alongside a sea of solar panels glistening in the bright Florida sun.
For these vets, each panel serves as a symbol of their new mission as they stand on the forefront of helping create American energy independence.
From battlefields to solar fields, these seasoned warriors, representing different branches of the U.S. military – Army, Navy, and Air Force – fuse their collective experiences into a remarkable joint operation. They're proud to call themselves solar developers for Florida Power & Light Company (FPL) in pursuit of a brighter future with low-cost electricity and zero emissions.
“I was attracted to the military because we were working on things that were larger than ourselves and I find that to be true with the solar program at FPL,” said Air Force Veteran Tal Berman, who now develops solar projects for FPL. Berman served as an Air Battle Manager supporting tactical control for seven years, primarily for the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) in Germany.
“I often find that the skills I used as an Air Force officer planning successful missions also apply in planning a successful solar project in the communities in which we’re developing,” said Berman.
With 66 solar energy centers operating and many more in development throughout the Sunshine State, he and his colleagues are assigned to different geographic regions, furthering solar development from coast to coast.
Berman focuses on Southwest Florida, Army officer Daniel Brankin in North Florida, and Navy officer Mitchell Heaton works in the Treasure Coast area.
“We bring together our capabilities and experiences, just like we would in joint operations,” Brankin said, referring to a joint military operation where land, naval, air, space, and special forces work together on a single mission. “In those environments, we come up with creative and innovative solutions for the benefit of our customers and projects.”
FPL continues to lead one of the nation’s largest expansions of solar energy.
Using fuel from Florida’s sunshine, FPL says solar energy is now the most cost-effective option for new power generation – and costs less to operate and maintain than new natural gas power plants. FPL’s solar additions have already saved customers nearly $700 million in fuel costs.
Adding low-cost solar to the company’s energy mix comes more than two decades after FPL began modernizing its power plant fleet by tearing down old oil burning plants and replacing them with highly efficient plants that run on natural gas – saving customers more than $14 billion in fuel costs, avoiding tens of millions of carbon dioxide emissions.
While Brankin prepares empty pastures for solar sites, he envisions the reliable energy future he’s building for his two young children.
“For their generation and their kids’ generation, they’re going to have a cleaner, brighter, reliable energy future and I get to be a part of that on the very forefront,” he said with a smile.
Though Brankin was new to the energy industry when hired by FPL, his colleague Heaton was no stranger to the field when he joined the company.
“I was first introduced to energy in the Navy as a submarine officer working through nuclear energy training pipelines for a year and a half before working as a submarine officer on a western Pacific ship for over two years,” said Heaton.
He finished his military career by training the next generation of sailors and introducing them to the nuclear pipeline.
“What I loved about the military is it was something I could take pride in and that’s what I love about this job as well, to be able to point to [solar fields] as a legacy that lives on,” said Heaton.
Heaton's current role involves managing ten solar projects in Florida, allowing him to engage in various aspects of the projects, from legal and real estate to engineering.
Yet, what excites Berman, Brankin, and Heaton most is the camaraderie they share.
“It’s all about being able to connect on that veteran level, cracking jokes and making sure we are all transitioning well from the military to civilian life,” said Heaton. “We have each other’s backs in the same way we had each other’s backs in the military.”
The close-knit trio is part of a larger community of veterans within FPL’s parent company NextEra Energy, which employs more than 2,100 veterans.
FPL Vice President of Universal Solar Development, Brandon Stankiewicz, not only oversees this team of solar developers but offers his own experience as an Army veteran himself. He is a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point and understands the power of their shared experiences.
“Veterans bring a unique skill set to any job or role they take on. Each has real-world problem-solving skills, can adapt to uncertainty and knows how to work on a high functioning team. Most importantly, these people understand leadership – they know how to make decisions and how to bring their teams with them to be successful, no matter the assignment,” said Stankiewicz.
In recognizing the value veterans bring to the workplace, the U.S. Department of Labor awarded NextEra Energy the 2023 HIRE Vets Medallion for the fifth year in a row.
“I didn't have to give up the components that have become ingrained in me as an individual. I was able to accentuate them,” said Heaton.
As they stroll amidst the rows of solar panels, discussing business and sharing light-hearted jokes, it's evident that their journey from the armed forces to the renewable energy field is a testament to their shared commitment.
These projects, they believe, hold a broader significance beyond being just solar sites.
“This program represents cutting edge technology, a sustainable future, cost-effective, reliable energy that customers can count on,” said Berman. “It’s sometimes hard for me to wrap my head around how grand this endeavor is.”