The Home Upgrade Process Needs an Upgrade – Energy Institute Blog

The Home Upgrade Process Needs an Upgrade – Energy Institute Blog

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My experience preparing for electric vehicles showed that automakers, utilities, electricians and government need to work together better.

Last month we completed a major electrical panel upgrade project at our duplex. A goal of the project was to add enough electrical capacity to support electric vehicle charging and the eventual removal of all of the natural gas appliances. In a prior blog post I described how the project triggered requirements that added uncertainty, time and cost. As landlords we questioned whether this would be a good investment. We decided to move forward anyway, judging that the project would pay off over time. 

Today I want to reflect on additional challenges to the widespread electrification of households that became clear during our project. It is hard to imagine tens of millions of households in the US individually undertaking the sort of time consuming, expensive process that I experienced.

Substation
Substation art in Petaluma, CA

Happy Consumers Charge at Home

The urgency of addressing the home charging challenge is growing. This month the California Air Resources Board (CARB) is considering adopting the Advanced Clean Cars II regulations, which would require that nearly 70% of new vehicle sales in the state be zero-emissions vehicles by 2030. This is on a path to 100% zero-emissions vehicle sales by the 2035 model year, a goal announced by Governor Newsom.

CARB’s regulatory analysis discusses access to charging, especially home charging, as a key barrier to the goal.  The agency describes recent surveys that find consumers are happiest when they have access to faster charging at home. Some electric vehicle owners with poor access to charging have abandoned their vehicles and switched back to gasoline alternatives. CARB sees the challenge growing over time as the electric vehicle market expands to include vehicles with larger batteries and consumers who make longer trips. Illustrating this trend, the upcoming Ford F-150 Lightning has a battery that is twice as large as the popular Tesla 3 sedan’s battery. Some (bigger and heavier) vehicles need larger batteries because they will consume more electricity per mile. If they are also driven more their drivers will want much faster charging than today’s electric vehicle owners

However while CARB’s own analysis described the challenges, the agency’s new state regulations don’t address them head-on. This leaves the problem — and solution — in the hands of automakers, utilities, contractors, other government agencies, and property owners.

My project highlighted that there is work to be done. Eight months passed from when we selected an electrician to the completion of the project. The actual electrical work took about ten days. Labor shortages, supply chain issues, utility review, permit inspector availability, utility scheduling all contributed to a very protracted process. These delays added costs too. Fortunately, this was not a time-sensitive project. If one of our tenants had already purchased an electric vehicle it would have been a frustrating eight months. If the tenant had an urgent need for a new vehicle they might have changed course and bought a gasoline vehicle instead.

As I described in my prior blog post, our project was complex. Some homes only need to add a new circuit, circuit breaker and receptacle to add vehicle charging. But nearly half of US housing units are like ours and were built before 1980. Older homes tend to have lower capacity electric panels that will need to be upgraded. 

Experimentation Needed

More policy and business experimentation is vital to prepare for a rapid pace of home charging investment. These are the key sectors who will need to be a part of this:

Automakers: Automakers will be under immense pressure to sell electric vehicles if standards like California’s proposed Advanced Clean Cars II regulation proliferate. Several automakers are already helping buyers with the home charging challenge. GM has started a program that matches Chevy Bolt buyers with local electricians and covers standard charger installation cost and permit fees. Tesla helps car buyers find trained electricians in their area. These innovations show automakers recognize the challenge. Will automakers build out affiliated electrician networks? Will any automakers vertically integrate and build in-house electrician divisions, the way that Tesla has forgone the traditional dealer model and has built its own charging network? The history of the incompatible charging standards for vehicles leads me to think we’ll see multiple approaches. 

Utilities: Investor-owned electric utilities have a lot to gain from electrification (although natural gas utilities will lose) if higher grid usage requires them to invest in more infrastructure. They can also get in the way. One potential electrician I met with was not interested in the project because it would require too much coordination with the utility and uncertainty about project timing due to the utility capacity review. After hearing this, we chose an electrician who had a strength in utility coordination. Even this electrician told us that they were increasing the fee that they charge to clients for utility coordination because it was taking more and more of their time. This is troubling. Utilities should proactively conduct hosting capacity studies, as many do for distributed energy resources. These studies can let a utility, and building owners and electricians, know where a utility can accommodate panel upgrade projects immediately, and where system upgrades will be needed.

Electricians: Our electricians described labor shortages, especially for skilled staff who could execute projects as well as coordinate with customers and utilities. Labor markets are very regional, but it is easy to find national coverage about a shortage of electricians, even before the current national labor shortage. Industry players point to the retirement of baby boomers and the growing interest in technology jobs among younger workers, including those without a college education. More research and experimentation is needed to find ways to grow this labor market or find labor saving alternatives.

Local permitting authorities: Permitting adds costs and delays. California has created the Zero Emission Vehicle Permitting Olympics as a creative way to encourage local governments to streamline permitting. Streamlining efforts should be reviewed and expanded to encompass the complex upgrade projects that so many homes will need for electrification.

State and Federal Government: Government can have an important role in supercharging demand for electric vehicles with fuel efficiency standards and better energy pricing.  But everyone from regulators to academics need to examine the best role for government to solve the home charging/electrification challenge. A big tax credit or rebate is one obvious answer. But large rebates for millions of households to upgrade panels could be unaffordable and inequitable. Any new initiatives should be started on a small scale and designed to determine what works and what does not. One idea would be for a local government to bundle together multiple projects and then bid them out contractors as a bundle, hopefully attracting more contractors and getting lower cost bids. Several cities near us have done this for sidewalk repairs.

The electric vehicle revolution is still in very early days. Now is the time for business and government to innovate and experiment to help streamline the process for home upgrades.

Keep up with Energy Institute blog posts, research, and events on Twitter @energyathaas.

Suggested citation: Campbell, Andrew. “The Home Upgrade Process Needs an Upgrade”  Energy Institute Blog, UC Berkeley, June 13,  2022, https://energyathaas.wordpress.com/2022/06/13/the-home-upgrade-process-needs-an-upgrade/

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