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.
Those pointing out that the current regime of one circuit per appliance is inefficient are on the mark. Old building codes and old technology need to be updated. How often do you use your dryer? Your oven or range? Do they need to be on dedicated circuits or can they share with each other or your EV charging or your water heater? To base a panel on maximum load, as if all these appliances will be (and need to be) operating simultaneously is inefficient and an unneeded cost. It also will cause the expense of upgrading the distribution grid to meet this potential load and building out excess solar farms needlessly, too often in undisturbed wilderness. (See the battles over BLM land in S. Nevada.) There is a cost to being profligate with “electrify everything.” You can go all-electric with a standard 100 Amp panel. Look a Tom Kabat’s stuff.
Thank you for this post Andrew. It seems most of the comments and your efforts are focused on the need to upgrade existing buildings for EVs, but the same challenges exist for adding electric appliances and heat pumps. For people replacing a space heater or water heater a nine month delay will not be workable at all. The challenges with utility delays is not limited to home upgrades. It has become a common place complaint amount housing developers who need to interconnect their new housing projects. The delays can add $millions to project costs for bigger projects and delay completion by months. This is adding to the overall housing crisis.
The CPUC and CEC already have a lot of priorities on their plate, so maybe the solutions needs to come from elsewhere, but utilities need to prioritize interconnection work.
Electrifying an existing home presents multiple challenges, which are unique to each situation, and is generally a long term project. The hassle and expense of the the panel upgrade was an eye-opener to me. Fortunately for us, our 33 year old home in rural San Diego County, (which we have been in for 23 years) was built with a 200 amp panel. This is probably because there’s no natural gas service in our area and the home came with an all electric kitchen, and propane hookups for other appliances. But still, it’s been a ten year process that started out when we installed a 5 kW solar shade structure. At that time there was no real concept of “home electrification” and we just wanted to reduce our electric bill and add some shade in our back yard. But since 2018 our conversion has become more and more intentional. Since then we have replaced the propane clothes dryer, water heater and central furnace with heat pump units; installed a Level 2 EVSE for our 2019 Kona EV (this required a 40 amp breaker): added another 2.5 kW of PV capacity; and installed a 20 kWh storage battery. The dryer and furnace were both approaching their EUL and so were up for replacement in another four or five years, but the propane water heater was fairly new.
We didn’t have to upgrade our main service. In fact, the panel was de-rated to 180 amps as part of the code requirement for interconnection. We did have to add a new panel, though, and re-route most of the circuits from the main panel so that they would be behind the battery in case of a Public Safety Power Shutoff. All circuits on the “protected loads panel” are now available to us in case of a PSPS or other grid failure. Getting rid of the propane appliances also allowed us to remove a 300 gallon potential propane bomb that was sitting right next to our garage.
There is a very straight forward solution to EV charging that never seems to be discussed. I was recently in the U.K. where I encountered many thousands of curbside EV charging outlets located in lamppost or nearby bollards. London has contracted with ubitricity to install over 5000 EV charging connections and the goal is 50000 for the entire UK. (https://www.ubitricity.com/charging-network/) Imagine if every utility pole in our urban centers had a couple of EV charging outlets how much simpler it would be to accommodate all those EV’s.
California has some of the slowest and least efficient permitting processes in the country, as well as the highest costs.
Amusingly, the same sorts of headaches are impacting ElectrifyAmerica as they attempt to build out their EV fast charging network. (For the past quarter, it costs them 46% more per station than in other states and the permitting process alone averages 81 days – AB970 notwithstanding.). The short of it is that California is only ‘leading’ in areas one would rather it didn’t.