America Is Trying to Electrify. There Aren’t Enough Electricians. | Kanebridge News
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America Is Trying to Electrify. There Aren’t Enough Electricians.

Climate law is expected to add new demand for car chargers and heat pumps

Wed, Mar 1, 2023 8:54amGrey Clock 4 min

Electricians, the essential workers in the transition to renewable energy, are in increasingly short supply. They are needed to install the electric-car chargers, heat pumps and other gear deemed essential to address climate change.

Electricians say they are booked several months out and struggling to find enough workers to keep up with demand. Many are raising wages and prices and worried that they won’t be able to keep up as government climate incentives kick in.

“I’m tired of telling people I can’t help them,” said Brian LaMorte, co-owner of LaMorte Electric Heating and Cooling in Ithaca, N.Y., which does residential heat-pump installations and electric-service upgrades. His six-person company is booked roughly six months out, so he has been referring potential new customers to other firms in the area.

The 48-year-old brought on two apprentices last year and has seen the price of an average job rise to roughly $20,000 from about $16,000 two years ago due to rising raw materials, equipment and labor prices.

Dan Conant says he worries about getting enough electricians for his West Virginia renewable-energy company Solar Holler. The company started an internship program in partnership with a local high school and expects the state will need several thousand more electricians over the next decade.

“Ultimately, this is the bottleneck,” Mr. Conant said.

The scarcity is part of a nationwide labour shortage and most acute in the Northeast and California, where demand for green-energy products is highest, in part due to state incentives. Some economists expect the pinch to spread across the country as incentives from the new federal law known as the Inflation Reduction Act kick in.

The current total of more than 700,000 electricians in the U.S. is expected to grow about 7% over the next decade, slightly faster than the nationwide average of 5%, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. The shift to renewable energy and the need to update electrical systems is expected to drive that growth. Some analysts say that expansion needs to be several times faster for the U.S. to meet its climate and electrification goals.

The BLS includes a separate category of solar photovoltaic installers, some of whom could also be electricians. Growth in that much smaller sector is expected to be above 25%.

Industry analysts say it will be difficult to meet that demand, particularly because more electricians retire every year than are replaced, and many retired during the coronavirus pandemic.

The median age of electricians is over 40 years old, in line with the broader workforce. But nearly 30% of union electricians are between ages 50 and 70 and close to retirement, up from 22% in 2005, according to the National Electrical Contractors Association.

The average annual electrician salary rose from roughly $50,000 to about $60,000 from 2018 to 2022, an increase roughly in line with the national average, according to the BLS.

The climate law will put several hundred billion dollars’ worth of incentives into the economy designed to accelerate the energy transition and boost clean-energy supply chains in the U.S. The law followed an infrastructure spending package and incentives for domestic semiconductor manufacturing that are also expected to spur demand for labour and could end up pushing up total construction costs.

“We’re definitely in a new era of industrial policy,” said Philip Jordan, vice president at BW Research, a firm that studies how policies will impact the economy and workforce. “We’re putting our finger on the scale in a much more aggressive way than we ever have before.”

The impact of these policies differs from that of broad-based stimulus passed under the Trump and then Biden administrations in 2020 and 2021. Those packages raised demand across the board for goods and services. These latest policies are much smaller in total dollars, but also more focused, with their effects falling acutely on certain types of workers and products and in certain regions.

“There’s not enough people to do all this,” said Georgia Republican Gov. Brian Kemp, who argues the programs should have been spread out over a longer period. His state has attracted billions of dollars in investments from companies such as Norwegian firm Freyr Battery and Koch Industries Inc. since the climate law’s passage.

To help address worker shortages, the law ties tax credits for renewable projects to the number of hours worked by apprentices.

Product makers such as Schneider Electric SE are working to make simpler products and drive down installation times. The company has been investing tens of millions of dollars in expanding its product manufacturing in North America and partnering with trade associations on training programs for electricians who install them, said Michael Lotfy, senior vice president of power products.

“We’re really trying to cope with the spike in demand that will happen,” he said.

On a recent week in Ithaca, three of Mr. LaMorte’s employees were installing a heat pump for Matthew Minnig, a 40-year old engineer who lives with his wife in a four-bedroom house. Mr. Minnig hopes to use the heat pump—which moves air between the inside and outside of a home—to replace a natural-gas boiler for heat in the winter and add air conditioning in the summer.

He ordered the units in April, but was told installation would take several months. “There are times I can remember last summer thinking, ‘We’ve already paid a considerable amount for this project, and I’m still sweating in my house,’ ” he said.

Demand for electrical upgrades and heat pumps is likely higher in Ithaca than many cities because of local and state policies and incentives encouraging a shift away from fossil fuels.

Electricians say jobs can be bigger than expected because of the high electricity demands of devices such as car chargers and induction stoves. That often entails upgrading home electric panels to accommodate 100, 200 or 400 amperes, they say.

Jesse Kuhlman, owner of Kuhlman Electrical Services Inc. in Massachusetts, said the company’s South Shore division is booked out to the summer, its longest such backlog in recent years. The company focuses on rewiring old homes and has been doing many more electric-car charger installations lately.

Mr. Kuhlman has tried to grow the company by training apprentices over time. He expects new demand for rewiring homes and electric-panel upgrades to support the business even if the economy slows, a shift from the 2008 financial crisis, when he remembers not having jobs for weeks at a time.

“You can’t just take people off the street and throw them into what we do,” he said.

—Greg Ip contributed to this article.


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