Iraq’s Influence on Career in Renewables

by Frank Nicklaus, MBA’12 (8/4/11)

Frank Nicklaus, MBA’12

Energy significantly impacted and often undermined the social, economic, and environmental conditions in northern Iraq during my time there and influenced my decision to seek a career in renewable energy.

Almost five years ago to the day I began my first of two deployments to Iraq as an infantry officer in the US Army.  I remember piling into a Chinook helicopter with the other members of my platoon to make the short flight from our staging area in the northern city of Kirkuk to our operating base in nearby Hawija.  I had traveled little outside of the US and our windowless flight from Kuwait the day prior had afforded us no views of the desert below, so I was anxious to catch my first glimpse of Iraq as our helicopter took off.  I sat nervously, staring through the small opening at the helicopter’s rear, looking mostly at barren desert until a thick plume of black smoke overtook my view.  As we moved further away I could see that the smoke was spewing from a large pool of spilled oil that had caught fire.  This was the first real indicator that I was “in Iraq” and was part of a confluence of energy-related problems that I would confront during the twenty-seven months I spent in the Middle East.

Energy significantly impacted and often undermined the social, economic, and environmental conditions in northern Iraq during my time there.  Most of the cities and villages I visited had enough electricity to become dependent on it but not enough to rely on it.  This translated to desperately uncomfortable living conditions during the summer months and a halt to commerce during the frequent power outages that pervaded the region.  Iraq’s archaic energy infrastructure, having suffered from decades of neglect in the face of multiple wars, lacked the efficiency and pollution controls necessary to protect local air quality, creating a public health problem that was exacerbated by the oil pipeline fires that burned unabated throughout our area.  Oil slicks were a frequent site on the Tigris River, which provided drinking and irrigation water to local residents, and corruption and violence bred as rival factions fought for control over oil revenues.  The amount of fuel we moved riskily across the battlefield each day in order to support our own operations was also alarming, and by the end of my second tour my experiences in Iraq, combined with my longstanding interest in environmental issues, persuaded me to pursue a career in the renewable energy industry upon completing my military service. 

In the fall of 2009 I began looking at business schools that offered energy-related classes and provided access to career opportunities in the renewable energy industry.  The decision to choose Johnson was an easy one.  I saw the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion as a way to gain hands-on experience in renewables while developing a rigorous understanding of the issues affecting the industry, from climate change to resource scarcity.  From talking with students and faculty I also knew that Johnson had a large alumni base working in renewables and that the school had a strong track record of supporting veterans in making the transition from the military to the business world.  I can say without hesitation that Johnson has exceeded my expectations.  During the fall semester I was able to connect with Johnson alumni at nearly a dozen wind and solar companies.  Their willingness to provide advice and introduce me to new contacts helped me develop a sound foundation of knowledge about the renewable energy industry and put me on track for a successful internship search later in the year.  As a participant in the Sustainable Global Enterprise Immersion during the spring semester I had the chance to work with a manufacturer of power generation equipment to develop a strategy for increasing revenue, a project that not only deeply enhanced my business acumen and knowledge of different clean energy technologies, but also provided me with analytical and project management skills that I am using daily as an intern in GE’s Renewable Energy Leadership Program this summer.

As a company that employs over 11,000 military veterans GE had been of interest to me even before business school.  By October of my first semester the Johnson Career Management Center had already put me in contact with nine alumni who were currently in or had graduated from the Renewable Energy Leadership Program.  After talking with them I came to appreciate the parallels between GE and the military – a performance-oriented culture, challenging assignments, and people who were passionate about solving tough problems.  I also loved the idea of working for an iconic American company.  Like Johnson, GE has not disappointed.  I have been continually impressed by the caliber of people I have met here and by their willingness to lend their time and expertise to my project team.  I am working with an MBA student from Duke to make recommendations on optimizing GE’s logistics strategy for offshore wind farms.  This project has strategic significance for GE, as it will help ensure that GE has the most competitive service offering in the offshore market, and it has provided my project partner and me with a strong sense of purpose as we contribute to driving the cost of offshore wind energy lower through more efficient operations and maintenance, something we hope will help move offshore wind closer to widespread deployment.

As I look back over the past twelve months I am amazed by how much I have learned and how many incredible experiences Johnson has provided, not just professionally and academically, but personally as well.  I am very excited about bringing together our final project findings and recommendations here at GE during the coming weeks and about returning to campus for the start of my second year.