To get off fossil fuels, America is going to need a lot more electricians

“It’s going to be the electrification worker, the electricians that are going to see a real surge in demand,” said Panama Bartholomy, executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a national nonprofit working to get fossil fuels out of homes. Grist image by Amelia Bates.

This article was published by Grist on Jan 11, 2023.


This story was produced in partnership with Post Script Media and Canary Media. You can listen to the podcast version here.

Chanpory Rith, a 42-year-old product designer at the software company Airtable, bought a house in Berkeley, California, with his partner at the end of 2020. The couple wasn’t planning to buy, but when COVID-19 hit and they both began working from their one-bedroom San Francisco apartment, they developed a new hobby: browsing listings on Zillow and Redfin — “real estate porn,” as Rith put it.

Their pandemic fantasizing soon became a pandemic fairy tale: They fell for a five-bedroom, midcentury home in the Berkeley hills with views of San Francisco Bay and put down an offer. “And then came the joys and tribulations of homeownership,” Rith said.

One of those tribulations began with a plan to install solar panels. Rith didn’t consider himself a diehard environmentalist, but he was concerned about climate change and wanted to do his part to help. He didn’t have a car but planned on eventually getting an electric vehicle and also wanted to swap out the house’s natural gas appliances for electric versions. Getting solar panels would be a smart first step, he figured, because it might trim his utility bills. But Rith soon found out that the house’s aging electrical panel would need to be upgraded to support rooftop solar. And he had no idea how hard it would be to find someone to do it.

A woman walks past a home with solar panels installed on the roof in Oakland, California.
A woman walks past a home with solar panels installed on the roof in Oakland, California. Paul Chinn/The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Many of the electricians Rith reached out to didn’t respond. Those who did were booked out for weeks, if not months. He said they were so busy that the conversations felt like interviews — as if he were being evaluated, to suss out whether his house was worth their time.

“It felt like trying to get your kid into a nice kindergarten, where you have to be interviewed and do a lot of things just to get on the radar of these electricians,” Rith told Grist.

His first-choice contracting company put him on a long waitlist before it would send anyone out to look at the house. Another gave him an exorbitant quote — more than $50,000 to upgrade the electrical panel, along with installing new, grounded outlets to replace the house’s outdated two-prong outlets. Rith wound up putting the project on hold to do some renovations first.

Andrew Campbell, executive director of the University of California, Berkeley’s Energy Institute, had a similar experience. Campbell wanted to upgrade the electrical panel on a duplex he owns in Oakland so that he could install electric vehicle chargers for the building’s tenants. But even after finding a company to take the job, a shortage of technicians and the contractor’s overbooked schedule, among other delays, meant it took eight months from the time the first electrician came over until the project was done.

a man in a pink shirt and jeans stands outside a gray house with an electrical box on the side
Andrew Campbell stands near the electrical panel on a duplex he owns in Oakland, California. Emily Pontecorvo / Grist

“I was feeling like, why am I doing this?” Campbell said. “The electricians who should want the project don’t seem to want it. The utility, which is really going to benefit a lot from electrification, they’re making it hard. It just felt like barrier after barrier.”

You could read Rith and Campbell’s troubles as minor inconveniences, or you could read them as warning signs.

To cut greenhouse gas emissions on pace with the best available science, the United States must prepare for a monumental increase in electricity use. Burning fossil fuels to heat homes and get around isn’t compatible with keeping the planet at a livable temperature. Appliances that can be powered by clean electricity already exist to meet all of these needs.

The race to “electrify everything” is picking up. President Joe Biden’s signature climate legislation, the Inflation Reduction Act, signed in August, contains billions of dollars to help Americans electrify their homes, buy electric vehicles, and install solar panels. Meanwhile, cities all over the country, including New York, Boston, Seattle, and San Francisco are requiring that new buildings run only on electricity, after the city of Berkeley, California, pioneered the legislation in 2019.

men in suits stand in front of a red display with electric vehicle sign and chargers
President Joe Biden talks with representatives from a Boston electrician apprentice program during a White House demonstration of an electric vehicle charging station on November 2, 2022. Jim Watson / AFP via Getty Images

The problem is, most houses aren’t wired to handle the load from electric heating, cooking, and clothes dryers, along with solar panels and vehicle chargers. Rewiring America, a nonprofit that conducts research and advocacy on electrification, estimates that some 60 to 70 percent of single-family homes will need to upgrade to bigger or more modern electrical panels to accommodate a fully electrified house.

“It’s going to be the electrification worker, the electricians that are going to see a real surge in demand,” said Panama Bartholomy, executive director of the Building Decarbonization Coalition, a national nonprofit working to get fossil fuels out of homes.

But in the Bay Area, arguably the birthplace of the movement to “electrify everything,” homeowners are struggling to find technicians to upgrade their electrical panels or install electric heat pumps, let alone for everyday repairs. Residential electrical contractors are swamped with calls and struggling to find experienced people to hire. The schools tasked with training the next generation of electricians are tight on funds and short on teachers. It’s a story that’s playing out across the country. And what might be inconvenient today could soon hamstring attempts to cut carbon emissions even as these efforts become more urgent.

Pictograph in shape of California shows roughly one certified electrician qualified to work on households per 478 housing units in the state.
Grist / Jessie Blaeser

“It is hard to imagine tens of millions of households in the U.S. individually undertaking the sort of time consuming, expensive process that I experienced,” wrote Andrew Campbell in a blog post chronicling his experience.

The contractor Campbell ended up working with was Boyes Electric, a small company based in Oakland owned by Borin Reyes.

Reyes, who’s 28, moved to California from Guatemala when he was 16 and got introduced to electrical work in high school. His dad was a general contractor and would take him out in the field during summer break. On one job, there was an electrical subcontractor who needed an extra set of hands, and Borin started working for him from time to time. He liked the work — but more so he liked the money he was making. After graduating from high school, he saw electrical work as a path to moving out of his parents’ house, so he enrolled in a training program at a now-shuttered for-profit technical school in Oakland to get more experience.

a man in a black shirt holds a car charger in a garage
Electrician Borin Reyes holds an electric vehicle charger. Brett Marsh / Grist
After graduating in 2013, Reyes spent several years working for a larger company before starting his own. Today, he loves the job. “You really have to be focused, because of safety,” he said. “You have to be hands-on most of the time and solving problems. That’s one of the things that I like best — solving problems.”

Reyes’ company has always focused on rewiring homes undergoing renovations rather than new construction. But at the beginning of 2022, he added a new specialty when his business partnered with a company called QMerit, a middleman between electric vehicle dealerships and electricians. Dealerships send new car owners to QMerit to get help finding qualified technicians to install EV chargers, and QMerit connects them with local businesses like Boyes Electric.

Electric vehicles make up less than 1 percent of cars on the road, but that’s changing fast as sales soar. The number of electric vehicles registered in the U.S. jumped nearly 43 percent between 2020 and 2021, according to the Department of Energy. Government incentives are sure to give the market another boost: The Inflation Reduction Act offers as much as $7,500 in rebates for new EVs and $4,000 for used EVs. In California, Washington state, and New York, you won’t even be able to buy a new model with an internal combustion engine after 2035. The number of public charging stations is also growing, so EV owners don’t necessarily need to install their own charging equipment at home, though many do. It’s convenient, and can also turn a car into a backup power source when the lights go out.

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