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The Biggest Barrier to Electrifying Buildings is not Technology

Posted by Charley Cormany, EFCA Executive Director

Driven by aggressive greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction goals, California is racing towards an all-electric future. The effort will be transformative and reach across multiple sectors of our economy. Transportation, which accounts for over 40 percent of our greenhouse gas emissions, is the first target. Buildings, which account for 12 to 20 percent of California’s GHG emissions, are not far behind.

California Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector – by CARB

California Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Economic Sector

“Electrifying everything” means phasing out our consumption of fossil fuels in favor of clean-generated electricity. Legislative efforts support this transition to a clean energy future, but this task won’t be easy. It will take strong political will and compromise from some large and well-established industries.

California’s favorite energy source is natural gas, and we rely heavily on fossil fuels in general, as seen in the chart below.

California Energy Consumption Estimates, 2018

California imports approximately 85 percent of this natural gas from other states, making us subject to rate structures and pricing that are out of our control. Another issue with natural gas is transmission and distribution. Recent studies have shown that leaks in the distribution system are far higher than have been assumed. The main component of natural gas is methane, which is a potent greenhouse gas. Leaks during transportation allow methane to escape directly into the atmosphere, which is accelerating climate change. For all of these reasons, if California wants to have any chance of meeting its GHG reduction goals, it must deal with its dependence on natural gas — and soon.

However, because California has long relied on burning natural gas for space and water heating in buildings the transition to all-electric buildings will require drastic changes.

While the preferred solution is to shift building energy consumption in buildings to electricity generated by renewable sources, the state will also need to keep other low-carbon options on the table as well. Renewable natural gas (RHG) will have a role, and nuclear power will likely be required to meet increased electricity demand. We must not underestimate the scale of this transition.  It is a massive change, and it is not likely to happen overnight.

Historically, successful large scale market transformations require multiple drivers. The three most important ones are technology, policy, and finance. I would argue that there is a fourth factor to consider, and it is a real barrier to electrification, the lack of an available workforce.

The absence of a well-trained and willing workforce may well be the most significant barrier to all-electric buildings. The lack of skilled tradespeople is a real concern. From what we hear, both new construction and retrofit contractors have trouble finding and hiring new employees. Even if we have all the other pieces needed to support the transition to a clean energy future, the harsh reality is that it won’t happen without warm bodies to do the work.

Time and time again, we hear this concern, from all kinds of contractors, all across the country. Companies are working like mad to keep up with demand but can’t find the qualified employees they need to hire to grow. It seems as if an entire generation has ruled out the possibility of working in the skilled trades.

I believe some of this is related to the recession in 2008-2010. As a fresh batch of students were graduating high school, the economy tanked. There were no jobs in multiple sectors of the economy. Grads who might have previously considered being a plumber or an electrician did not have the traditional pathway to advance in the trades. There were no entry-level positions available (or any positions, for that matter). In essence, we missed the opportunity to recruit an entire generation of young people into the skilled trades, and we are feeling the effects today.

There are other factors at work too. The dream of getting rich by creating and selling a new app for a ridiculous sum is a lot more attractive than a life in the trades, never mind that only a small number of people ever achieve this.

Many of our youth have gotten the message that college is the only path to a successful future. Post-primary education is a good thing, but how is it that vocational training has entirely given way to traditional four-year colleges?  College is expensive and not the optimum solution for many individuals, yet they feel obligated to attend anyway. Frequently, students graduate with a degree they don’t use and mountains of debt. Do we need to start promoting the annual earning potential of the various trades? After all, it is not unheard of for a student to graduate from a two-year trade school and earn six figures after a couple of years in the field. Conversely, an English major with a four-year degree and six-figure college debt might make half that as a teacher. (No disrespect to English majors or teachers).

The skilled trades used to be a viable career option for many people. Somewhere down the line that changed, most high school graduates today don’t even consider it an option. If we want to transform the market into a clean energy future, we need to start building a viable workforce today. From my perspective, this is the single biggest roadblock to an all-electric future.

When you look at the numbers and the timeline to achieve the state’s goals, driven by climate change, I don’t see how we will get there without a significant investment in building a workforce to support the effort. Most climate action plans mention the concern. Many have some funding allocated for workforce development, which is good. But where are the warm bodies who are willing to take advantage of these resources? Is this a perception problem, a marketing problem, an awareness problem? I suspect it has to do with a combination of all of the above.

No matter how committed you are to building an all-electric future, the fact remains that it will not happen until we figure out how to address the most significant barrier we face, the lack of boots on the ground to support the effort. It’s a bit like planning a major military offensive. You can have all the fancy airplanes with laser beams you want, but you will never advance without thousands of boots on the ground.

Building electrification is a good thing. Reducing waste with energy efficiency and converting to all-electric solutions is a great idea. We will never achieve this until we figure out how to develop an effective workforce. We need good policies and advances in technology. Finance is essential too.  Until we acknowledge that Contractors will be the driving force behind these changes, we are destined to fail. Contractors are responsible for selling and promoting building electrification. Their employees and installation crews will be the ones to make it happen. The real question is, how do we support contractors and electrification if they can’t find employees?

If we fail to address this fundamental issue, of the lack of an available workforce, we will never meet our goals, and we don’t have time for a second chance.

Charley Cormany

Executive Director

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