Part of the goal is is not just to talk about the work we've done on renewable energy but how we can train more and more folks to get involved —President Barack Obama
HILL AIR FORCE BASE — Standing in front of an array of solar panels at Hill Air Force Base, President Barack Obama announced Friday the base will participate in a new program aimed at helping vets prepare for jobs in the solar energy industry.
Obama used his first visit to Utah as president to promote Solar Ready Vets, a program that's part of his administration's new goal of readying 75,000 Americans to work in solar-energy related jobs by 2020.
Following a private roundtable meeting on renewable energy and the economy held at the base and his brief speech Friday, the president left Utah in Air Force One about 11:30 a.m.
He spent a total of just over 15 hours in Utah, one of only two states he had not yet visited while in office. South Dakota is the lone state now that he has not traveled to as president.
"Hill is leading by example," Obama said, citing the amount of energy being produced on the base from the rows of giant solar panels gleaming in the bright midday sunlight behind him as well as other renewable sources.
It's time, the president said, for the country to invest in the future by training veterans and others in need of new employment to take their place in a clean-energy economy.
"That's how we're going to keep our economy growing and that's how we're going to create new jobs and create more opportunity for the American people," he told a group of dignitaries assembled for the speech.
Obama said HAFB will join four other military installations already participating in a pilot version of the new program, in Camp Pendleton in California, Fort Carson in Colorado and Naval Station Norfolk in Virginia.
The president said the effort to train military personnel transitioning to civilian life "for careers in this growing industry" will be put in place at a total of 10 bases nationwide.
He took time in what was about an eight-minute speech to recognize a fellow Democrat, Salt Lake City Mayor Ralph Becker, for "doing outstanding work" on the issue.
Salt Lake City's "commitment to renewable energy, its impact on jobs, its impact on business, and its impact on the environment and climate change" were all topics at the roundtable discussion, the president said.
Becker and Utah Republicans Sen. Orrin Hatch and Rep. Rob Bishop were part of the roundtable, along with other Utahns, including Harry Briesmaster, HAFB chief civil engineer.
Briesmaster said later that some 500 to 600 Hill personnel leave the military annually. He called the president's announcement "extremely important for us" and said the solar energy industry is an important job market for the future veterans.
The solar array used as a backdrop for Obama's speech produces less than one-tenth of 1 percent of Hill Air Force Base energy needs, but reduces annual power costs by some $750,000, he said, adding there are plans to expand the facility.
"You guys are getting a lot of stuff done," Obama told the roundtable participants during their meeting. "Part of the goal is not just to talk about the work we've done on renewable energy, but how we can train more and more folks to get involved."
Air Force veteran Michelle Fisher, who was deployed four times in the Middle East, also joined the discussion. Fisher is currently attending Salt Lake Community College's program to train as a solar panel installer.
Another roundtable participant, Judy Fisher, the solar program coordinator for SLCC's Green Academy/Energy Institute, told reporters earlier in a White House conference call that she helped establish the program at Camp Pendleton.
"It was very inspiring to me to get to meet the soldiers at Camp Pendleton and hear and see the excitement that they had at the conclusion of their training," Judy Fisher said, adding she was "thrilled" the program is expanding to HAFB.
Dan Utech, the president's deputy special assistant for energy and climate change, told reporters in the morning conference call that the pilot programs are training nearly 200 active military personnel soon to leave the service at no cost to them.
He said the program offers intensive courses of up to six weeks to teach soldiers how to size and install solar panels, connect the electricity produced to the power grid and deal with local building codes.
The administration is also pushing for the necessary approval to allow military veterans to use their GI Bill benefits to pay for the program, so it can continue to expand.
Both Becker and Salt Lake County Mayor Ben McAdams liked what they heard from the president. The city and the county have installed solar panels on a number of facilities.
"The solar industry is exploding. The demand exceeds the available workers," Becker said. "People want clean energy. It's creating jobs. It's helping us with our air pollution and it's helping with our energy security. And it saves money over time."
He said Utahns are frugal and care about being self-sufficient, qualities that should make developing alternative sources of energy attractive. But there have been some roadblocks.
"Our challenges are much more institutional," he said, based on long-term reliance on more traditional energy sources such as coal. "We've got a ways to go in the state of Utah."
McAdams, also a Democrat, said the president's visit highlighted what is already happening in the city and the county and hopefully "will start some contagion" in the rest of the state.
University of Utah political science professor Matthew Burbank said the president's focus on solar energy isn't likely to change many minds.
"I don't think he's going to sway many people," Burbank said, calling his speech more like "a nice pat on the back" for those who already agree with the administration.
Obama, who landed at HAFB Thursday evening, returned to the base after spending the night at the Salt Lake Sheraton Hotel in a motorcade through Salt Lake and Davis counties that attracted hundreds of well-wishers along the way.
Spectators lined 600 South in Salt Lake City and found vantage points along the freeways to wave at the president and snap photos, including motorists along southbound I-15 between Farmington and Kaysville who stood on top of their cars.
Some waved homemade signs with messages for the president including, "God Bless BO" and "Welcome to Utah President Obama" as the motorcade whizzed by on a freeway cleared of traffic.