The Home Upgrade Process Needs an Upgrade
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.
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.
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/
Andrew G Campbell View All
Andrew Campbell is the Executive Director of the Energy Institute at Haas. Andy has worked in the energy industry for his entire professional career. Prior to coming to the University of California, Andy worked for energy efficiency and demand response company, Tendril, and grid management technology provider, Sentient Energy. He helped both companies navigate the complex energy regulatory environment and tailor their sales and marketing approaches to meet the utility industry’s needs. Previously, he was Senior Energy Advisor to Commissioner Rachelle Chong and Commissioner Nancy Ryan at the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC). While at the CPUC Andy was the lead advisor in areas including demand response, rate design, grid modernization, and electric vehicles. Andy led successful efforts to develop and adopt policies on Smart Grid investment and data access, regulatory authority over electric vehicle charging, demand response, dynamic pricing for utilities and natural gas quality standards for liquefied natural gas. Andy has also worked in Citigroup’s Global Energy Group and as a reservoir engineer with ExxonMobil. Andy earned a Master in Public Policy from the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University and bachelors degrees in chemical engineering and economics from Rice University.
If an EV battery costs $22,000.00 to replace not including the electricity costs to charge the battery and is only supposed to last 10 years at most, why would anyone buy one. $22,000.00 at $6.00 per gallon gasoline would equal 3667 gallons of gasoline. At 30 miles per gallon that would be 109,000 miles of driving. Then add the cost of the electricity at 24 cents per kilo watt hour equals 35,667 kilo watt hours times .24 = $8,800 for the electricity on 109,000 miles equals $31,000.00 to drive the 109,000 miles or 28 cents per mile or in gasoline on a 30 mile per gallon vehicle at $8.40 per gallon gasoline to break even. We can make cars that get over 50 miles per gallon or use half the amount of gasoline we use in today’s SUV market. Why not put that money into Rooftop Solar panels and eliminate all the fossil fuels we use in electrical generation or even the Natural Gas our homes heating, cooking and hot water production? Our utilities are barely able to keep up with the current electrification needs now let along doubling the home’s usage with an EV. If you really want an EV, get Solar First and make it off-grid capable with a few batteries first. Charging you EV from the Grid is just burning fossil fuels indirectly so what is the point.
I think it’s important that electricians and HVAC people get familiar with the concept of a circuit splitter. Very often you can split an existing circuit so your panel capacity doesn’t have to change. You would plug two 240-volt appliances into the same circuit and specify which gets priority. Your electric stove or dryer might share a circuit with an EV charger, and get priority when they need to run. See https://www.getneocharge.com/smart-splitter or https://simpleswitch.io/ for example.
Thank for the rundown on the significant issues with retrofitting for EVs that you learned through personal experience.
What about new construction? What is, or can be, done to develop both an aesthetic and building code rules that require new construction to be erected with solar roofs as original features? And what about requiring this in all types of construction — residential, commercial and industrial?
As for retrofits, is the market creating efficient products for residential or workplace EV charging? That would include smart chargers that operate during off-peak periods only unless the owner overrides the charger.
I think most Level 2 chargers can be programmed with a schedule. My ChargePoint unit actually has the SDG&E (and probably others) TOU schedules pre-loaded into the app.
A few thoughts:
1) My residential PV system typically produces 4,800 Kwh during a one-year (actually a rolling 52-week) period, I use only 1,550 Kwh. I return to the grid 3,250 Kwh. If I used all that extra power to drive an EV, assuming a typical rate of four miles per Kwh, I could drive 13,000 annually without buying any gas. However, over the lifetime of my car, I have averaged less than 7,200 miles per year. At that rate I would have 1,450 Kwh annually to devote to running a heat pump to heat and cool my house. Seems like getting an EV is the way to go. However, I attempted to have my main panel upgraded to 200 amps so I could get an EV charger, but it cost too much–$13K. One friend spent $12K to remove the old furnace and upgrade to a heat pump. For now, I’ll keep driving my well maintained 1995 Subaru wagon and my gas furnace.
2) One obvious option is the plug-in hybrid (PHEV). There are advantages from both a personal and social perspective to PHEVs. You can plug in your PHEV to an existing 110-volt circuit. It won’t recharge quickly, but it may recharge enough for a few local errands. And if you forget to charge it, you can rely on the gasoline engine. From a social perspective, if lithium batteries become scares w/rt demand, PHEVs may be the better option. To see this, let’s just assume most daily driving is less than 50 miles, and PHEVs have a 50-mile range, while an EV has 5x the batteries and a 250-mile range. What’s the better option from a social perspective–five PHEVs that seldom use their gasoline engines, or one EV and four conventional gas-powered vehicles (that always use their engines)?
3) The small solar cars mentioned in the comments above sound like an interesting option, especially if they also can be charged from a conventional 110-volt outlet, like a golf cart. There are many possibilities for neighbor EVs, like three-wheeled E-bikes with full fairings that keep out the rain and that provide a safe storage area for groceries.
4) Most homeowners already have a 220-volt circuit that they seldom use–the circuit for the electric clothes dryer. Mine is 30 amps. I suggested to the electrician that they could install a simple switch in the 220-volt circuit that would allow me to use the circuit for an EV charger, then switch it back manually when I wanted to use the dryer. They never got back to me on that.
Excellent point to switch the output from a 30-amp breaker from one device receptacle to another with a double pole, double throw switch. They make an a-off-b switch for backup 30-amp generators transfer switches already. The dryer or unused electric oven in older homes that are seldom used would be great candidates for switching. Unfortunately, utilities count all the devices and loads in a home because they figure they can all be turned on at one time. The a-off-b switches are not considered in the NEC except in transfer feeding “line” switches from the grid or generator and not as “load” switches to household loads. Maybe it is time to upgrade the National Electrical Code?
A growing number of folks are looking at how might we “Electrify simply, so others may simply electrify”. There is even a little web page dedicated to panel optimization, also affectionately known as the Watt Diet. https://redwoodenergy.net/watt-diet-calculator/
The basic idea is with good choices, many homes can electrify completely including all EV charging without upsizing their 100 Amp (24 kW) electric panels. This frees up utility labor and electrician labor to do the many thousands of actually required upsizings from 30-60 Amps current to 100 Amps (fully electric lifestyle ) level.
Avoiding oversizing the EV charging circuit (a form of range anxiety) will help the other circuits fit on the electric panel without upsizing. And it will enable more neighbors to also electrify while utilities work on neighborhood transformers upsizing to extend transformer lives. This increased longer hours of gentle sales across less overheated equipment reduces electric rates compared to the large charger circuit examples.
A 12,000 mile per year home charging sizing example: 12,000 miles per year at 3 miles per kWh requires 4,000 kWh/year from a home circuit. That’s only ~ 11 kWh/ day. That can be delivered by a 120V outlet in about 8 hours, or from a 240V 20 Amp charger circuit outlet in under 3 hours. So there is no need to immediately size everything up to pit-stop-speeds with 50 Amp circuits meeting daily needs in only 75 minutes of flow.
Now it can make sense to install a moderately set charger or outlet with larger 6 or 8 gauge copper wire so it can handle a larger setting in the future when you get your Ford Lightening. But there are significant personal and societal benefits to electrifying simply.
There are creative work arounds to install chargers and heat pumps within the current panel capacity. There was recently a demonstration at Muir Commons in Davis of one such solution.
Another solution is to reverse course on trying to demolish the DER market by the utilities and CPUC, and instead incentivize solar+storage systems that take on the added load directly and internally so as to bypass the panel. Perhaps the incentive should include the avoided cost of the panel upgrade.
We should not just stop promising solutions simply because they appear inequitable. We should be looking for separate solutions to those equity issues, e.g., direct income subsidies to those who need this. One of the truisms of technological adoption is that wealthier households are on the leading edge because they have the risk tolerance and resilience to ride out initial difficulties and expense. We need to accept this fundamental principle and try to address the ancillary issues separately.
Good points all, Andrew. The time and expense necessary to install a 220V charger at my home in 2011 pale by comparison.
“But everyone from regulators to academics need to examine the best role for government to solve the home charging/electrification challenge.”
Because the zero-emission-vehicle mandate is an Executive Order signed by the Governor, it will primarily be up to the State of California. But addressing electrification, at this point, is getting way ahead of the game. There are ominous signs PacfiCorp will be using its Enhanced Gateway Transmission Project to deliver much of California’s baseload electricity in coming years, and there is currently no mechanism for ensuring it will generated by clean sources.
That’s step #1. All that would be accomplished by using PacifiCorp’s current mix of >90% fossil sources to provide the foundation of California’s electricity would be a horrendous increase in carbon emissions – albeit outsourced to Wyoming and Utah. The naïve assumption regionalizing Western electricity will encourage states to work in harmony to lower CO2 emissions has no basis in past, present, or rational policy.
The CAISO import rules plus the CARB emission limit rules on imports will largely blunt any emission increases from PacifiCorp imports. More likely is that Wyoming wind power imports will increase. In addition, the coal plants are being rapidly retired and few new gas plants are being ordered.
It would be SO SIMPLE to have the utility install chargers on several utility poles that one could access with a code. After all the various charging ‘services’ can bill your credit cards account, why can’t PGE etc bill your home utility account. All they need are ‘outlets’ [sockets] with 110v and 220v where one plugs in the charger. Yes there will be security and safety issues – but easier to deal than in every single home.
YES charging at home is more convenient. But charging near’ home would be the next best.
Excellent point on pole mounted, credit card charge stations where there are poles. Where there are underground utility lines, an oversized parking meter with receptacle could be installed that uses the car owners power cord rather than a utility provided power cord that would get cut off and scrapped for copper when de-energized some dark night. Mecedes used an induction plate under its EV to eliminate the power cord altogether. if utilities put induction plates in designated parking places and used a credit/debit card payment system on an adjacent meter, then theft would be eliminated unless someone moved the paying car and replaced it with their own without breaking the communications connection with the car originally being charged. Smart induction plate charging would be the next step and having them installed on all new homes in the garage or carport and all new cars being equipped with “induction charging” and communication software. After that, “Fast-TRAC’ induction plates built into the Interstates. “Fast TRAC” toll and charging all at once.
If you have an account with ChargePoint or Greenlots, anyone can access Burbank’s 73 public charging stations – even if you aren’t a resident:
The problem with all public charging stations is you don’t know whether they will be available when you arrive. In some situations it can be worse than running out of gas.
These problems arise because many or most EVs are incredibly inefficient because they spend most of their energy driving batteries around town rather than people. This is profit-maximizing because EV makers get to sell more expensive, overly powerful electric cars, but it does not maximize social and or environmental benefit.
A much lower-cost and higher net benefit solution is to drive small solar cars around town for the most common city driving tasks. See:
People own larger cars for the same reason that the electric grid has peaking CTS – they use them periodically for that 300 mile trip. The early EV advocates continually overlooked this situation. It’s too expensive to own a new small car for short trips–the used car market has fulfilled that role quite well.
It would be most informative if you complete your post and provide a cost breakdown that details an itemized list of out-of-pocket expenditures for each part of your upgrade as well as an accounting of the time you spent at each stage of the permitting and installation.