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  • Writer's pictureAndre Watson

With Green Power Surge, Short Supply Of Electricians May Hamper Real Estate Projects

By: Patrick Sisson

Two years ago, Nathanael Johnson, a Berkeley, California-based journalist and author covering climate change, decided he wanted to do more than learn about climate challenges and potential fixes. He wanted to be part of the solution, even if it involved getting a few shocks along the way.

Johnson became an electrician, enrolling in community college night classes and working alongside his boss installing heat pumps and induction stoves. Johnson said he is now making good money, nearly what he did as a writer, and a good portion of his work involves helping to “shut off the gas valve.” He really enjoys the challenge of rewiring a home for electrification, racing to install new cables and conduit pipes to get a home running in the same day.

He is also swamped with work.

“I've stumbled into it at a time when there's a tremendous demand for electricians,” Johnson said. “There was a lack of actual certified electricians. And then you get the need to actually change things on top of that, and yeah, it creates a real crunch.”

Courtesy of BlocPower

A surge in home electrification and building retrofits will put pressure on electricians to meet soaring demand.

The coming wave of home conversions, EV charger and heat pump installations, grid upgrades and building retrofits won't only severely strain the grid as the nation adapts to more renewable power generation and upgrades transmission capacity. The shift will also strain the workforce that wires, connects and installs new electric lines — a workforce that is already in high demand without adequate recruiting to fill its ranks.

Like construction labor, electricians tend to be older and nearing retirement, which doesn’t bode well for the coming spike in demand. And although retraining older workers to service new heat pumps or vehicle chargers isn’t onerous, it is time-consuming, especially for smaller businesses that can’t afford days off. The Bureau of Labor Statistics found there will be roughly 80,000 new electrician openings per year in the near future.

“We were already in a situation where we weren’t doing a good job of maintaining skilled workers,” said Sam Calisch, head of special projects at Rewiring America, a nonprofit focused on electrification.

Different project types dip into different pools of skilled workers, with firms and workers usually focusing on one specialty, such as residential, commercial, or grid and utility-scale work. But there will still be a pressing need to grow the workforce for commercial development. Tapping into new incentives from the Inflation Reduction Act and Infrastructure Bill will require electricians, as will retrofitting commercial properties in an increasing number of cities like New York City and Boston that have strict emissions reduction rules.

“To decarbonize the economy, we're going to transition almost everything to run on electricity that runs on fossil fuel today,” Calisch said. “To do that, we're going to have to deliver about two to three times more electricity than we do today. That's a tall order. But we've done it before: From 1950 to 1970, the amount of electricity that was delivered more than quadrupled.”

To do this, Calisch said there will be a multipronged effort, not a “silver bullet.” Workforce programs will begin to aggregate work, attempting to stand up new workers where demand is greatest to concentrate on retrofit efforts. Appliance manufacturers will begin adjusting their product lines, creating heat pumps and water heaters that can run on standard outlets and don’t require the same degree of rewiring. Calisch himself is co-founder of Channing Street Copper, a firm that sells 120-volt induction stoves.

Municipal governments can also play a big role, turning their electrified buildings into training centers for workforce development and installing charging networks directly wired to municipal power lines instead of requiring residents to make the investment in new infrastructure.

Other organizations are spearheading their own training. BlocPower, a Brooklyn-based energy tech company focused on electrification and retrofits, is helping run a $54M Civilian Climate Corps program in New York City, training 1,500 people per year in clean energy jobs. But it isn't enough.

“We are currently orders of magnitude off of where we need to be,” said Bradford Parker, who runs workforce development at BlocPower. “And that goes for electrical, that also goes for HVAC trades, which I think are going to be equally important in this sort of electrical transition. It's bad. Everybody needs electricians already.”

He said that while commercial projects will have more money behind them and employ the larger, more specialized firms, with the supply imbalance for electricians less pronounced than on the residential side, it will still be there, especially since work like retrofits will be much more complex. There is still going to be enormous demand, and “everyone is going to be flailing around, looking for qualified labor.”

It is important to make sure incentives are easy to access and widely available. There will be significant growing pains in the coming years, and if funding and support are made more available, that will help cultivate small businesses and contractors instead of having all the work flow to bigger, more established firms.

There is $72M in the Bipartisan Infrastructure Bill for training the clean energy workforce, and the Inflation Reduction Act is chipping in $200M for job training, which Parker said “ain't even close” to what’s needed. To truly realize the moment and take advantage of this massive shift, he said there needs to be more investment in retraining and reskilling, especially in underinvested communities and demographics, as well as for veterans and the formerly incarcerated.

Another important aspect of the electrification push is how union labor standards and pay will be incorporated into large projects and retrofits. Union training programs can also help increase the number of electricians in the field, but they typically operate and ramp up when there is guaranteed demand.

According to Beli Acharya, founder and executive director of the Construction Trades Workforce Initiative in the San Francisco Bay Area, it is important to leverage this massive workload to support union electricians and an expansion of union work to make sure that proper pay and benefits are established as a baseline.

Climate justice goals and union support run throughout President Joe Biden’s infrastructure and green infrastructure projects. Biden included principles and incentives from the Fair Labor Standards Act in the bills, but now states and municipalities also need to adopt similar standards, Acharya said.

“Folks are saying there’s a labor shortage, but there's a line outside of union training centers,” Acharya said. “There isn’t a line outside of a non-union shop because nobody wants to work for $10 an hour. It’s not a shortage. What’s lacking are regulations and standards.”

Acharya doesn't want to see a repeat of what happened to the solar industry, where contractors had no standards and quality suffered, she said. She wants to make sure that cities, developers and others adopt labor standards to benefit a triple bottom line: Workers are paid well, the environment is protected and the entire community benefits.

It is also important to make sure these large jobs include provisions to hire local workers. She said unions are already gearing up to train and deploy more workers.

In response to commercial real estate developers who may balk at the added time and cost of union labor standards, Acharya argued that the industry needs to make the investment in high-quality training and a growing workforce.

“If we don't adopt and utilize a union apprenticeship system that has been in play for 100 years, then we're already adding cost and time to the process of finding workers,” she said.

But according to Bill Prindle, ICF Climate Center senior fellow and vice president of sustainable energy and climate, the way that subsidies were built into recent federal legislation supporting this shift means that demand and spending on retrofits, upgrades and electrification will be spread out over five to seven years, which in turn gives a labor force he sees as very elastic time to train, ramp up and meet coming demand.

Smaller contractors especially need to see demand and understand that additional training time and expenses won’t go to waste.

“The fact that this funding is going to be around for this entire decade is important because it takes awhile for signals to get out there,” Prindle said. “It takes time to get awareness. After a couple years, three years, people start to think, ‘Oh, this is real, maybe I should do that.’ Then people quickly get on the bandwagon.”

Prindle said he sees materials and supply shortages, especially microchip shortages in things like switchgear or electric panels, being a bigger delay on commercial projects than labor.

This massive shift will be a particularly daunting challenge, especially when it comes to finding specialized labor.

Proponents of more training suggest making that challenge and the story of this shift part of the strategy. Since so much of the coming electrification shift will be on the backs of electricians and other skilled tradespeople, Calisch suggests looking into a narrative solution and selling the story of these workers as being key to a vital national infrastructure project.

“Electricians are doing their patriotic duty. They're climate workers,” he said. “We need to reconceptualize this job as a noble, world-saving activity.”

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