Navigating the Workforce Bottleneck

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The workforce is the driving engine of the economy. This adage is equally true even when the engine is efficient and electric. Clean energy jobs in the fields of energy efficiency and electrification are increasing. While the U.S. workforce grew overall by 2.8% between 2020 and 2021, clean energy jobs grew 4% during the same period. However, employers are having Building Modernization Legislative Toolkit difficulty filling these jobs because declining interest in skilled trade jobs over the past decades means there are few new workers in the fields of energy efficiency and electrification. Employers expect this picture to only get worse. In 2016, the U.S. Department of Labor estimated that as many as 500,000 energy industry workers would retire within five to 10 years.

Some states recognize this looming bottleneck and are taking action to advance comprehensive legislation on climate and energy policy, while simultaneously advancing workforce goals. Electrification and improving energy efficiency in buildings to reduce energy use save consumers money and advance climate goals. These upgrades and changes to buildings require a skilled workforce. The case for job growth in the energy efficiency and electrification sectors is bright due to projected exponential growth in clean energy jobs to meet demand. Many states have existing workforce development programs and are updating or changing the focus of these programs to educate the workforce in the clean energy sector. Only a handful of states, however, including Minnesota, Maine, New York, Massachusetts, Maryland and Illinois, have enacted legislation to launch or expand workforce development programs that provide the skills necessary for a successful and diverse building modernization workforce.

Successful state legislation to advance workforce development programs that prepare workers and businesses to meet the growing demand for energy efficiency, electrification and clean energy building upgrades can:

  • Ensure a just energy transition by increasing access to the education and training necessary for energy efficiency and building decarbonization jobs among underrepresented populations and businesses through equity-focused program outreach and curricula.
  • Develop training opportunities that enable those with nontraditional educational paths to gain the skills needed to successfully participate in the workforce.
  • Create programs to reach middle and high school students that allow students to get on-the-job experience in a trade at a younger age.
  • Remove barriers in existing workforce development programs, such as requirements for certain educational attainment, and barriers to individuals who have a criminal conviction or some connection to the justice system.
  • Provide skills-based networking and transition programs for workers and communities impacted by power plant closures. Workers affected by power plant closures may possess training and certifications not easily reflected in a job market focused on traditional degrees. State programs that focus on skills-based hiring and enabling nontraditional educational paths will be more readily able to connect displaced workers with quality jobs.
  • Enable more earn-as-you-learn programs through registered apprenticeships that provide participants with on-the-job learning while they earn a paycheck.

As more states enact laws to support the energy efficiency and building electrification workforce, they can use the legislative examples in the Building Modernization Legislative Toolkit to launch task forces and plans, create clean energy jobs networks and use state and ratepayer funds to create workforce development programs. States with robust energy efficiency and building electrification workforce development programs will be well positioned to pursue over $30 million in funds from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act for training and education needs, including activities that address current workforce gaps. States can leverage these funds for purposes such as pre-apprenticeships, apprenticeships and career opportunities for on-the-job training and vocational school support. The infrastructure legislation also includes millions of dollars for energy efficiency programs, which will require a qualified workforce to deliver.

Clean, efficient and smart: District heating can support Europe’s decarbonisation efforts

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Valuable flexibility can be exploited with efficient heating and cooling systems

In the 1920s, the Parisian heat network burned coal to provide steam to pre-heat the trains leaving Gare de Lyon station. Over time, the network grew into a district heating system that delivers heat to around 20% of the city. With its reliance on burning household waste, fossil gas and biomass to deliver very hot steam at greater than 200°C through old and leaky pipelines, however, the system is stuck in the past.

By contrast, in Saclay, a suburb in southwest Paris and home to one of France’s most high-tech university campuses, a new vision for district heat is emerging. Clean, efficient and smart, it shows that heating (and cooling) networks can be a key piece of the puzzle of how to decarbonise our buildings.

District heat can potentially utilise a huge amount of excess, ambient and renewable heat, especially in urban areas with high-density heat use. At the same time, it can benefit the electricity grid by providing much-needed flexibility through power-to-heat technologies and thermal storage.

Tapping into clean heat

In a district heating system like Paris’s main network, heat is often produced at a few central locations and then transported by pipelines to the users. Although not the most energy-efficient process, this works well when producing high-temperature heat from big plants burning fuels or when using waste heat from industry.

Most clean, low-carbon heat sources, on the other hand, produce heat of lower temperatures, which would need to be upgraded to higher temperatures to transport over longer distances due to the losses that occur during distribution. It is therefore more efficient to use the heat as close to the source as possible.

District heat can potentially utilise a huge amount of excess, ambient and renewable heat, especially in urban areas with high-density heat use.

In Saclay, the local authorities opted for a decentralised approach that makes the most of the deep geothermal source they have available to provide heating and cooling. Low-temperature heat of approximately 30°C is pumped up and fed into a pipeline system that connects clusters of buildings, each with its own heat pump to upgrade the heat to the required temperatures (>60°C).

One additional benefit: whenever the heat pumps produce heat, they also produce cold, which is fed back into the network and used for cooling processes.

Over time, new locally available sources will be added to the network, such as waste heat from cooling processes in laboratories and a data centre. When fully operational, the Saclay district heating system aims to run on 60% renewable, waste and ambient heat. Another 36% will come from electricity used in the heat pumps, using fossil gas (4%) only in winter peak times. Compared to a system using gas boilers, the system’s CO2 emissions are four-to-five times lower, and, even before the gas price spikes, users paid less for their heat.

Storage, flexibility and smart management

Storage is essential for clean energy systems to efficiently match demand with supply. District heat can contribute to this. Thermal energy storage, which usually entails putting hot water in a tank, pit or aquifer, is cheaper than storing electricity in batteries and gives heat networks the necessary flexibility to integrate renewable and waste-heat sources.

For instance, systems can save the excess industrial or solar thermal heat available in summer for use in winter, or can allow heat pumps to produce heat at times of the day when renewable electricity is plentiful and cheap, and save it for when demand is highest.

The Saclay system uses the heat retained by the well-insulated pipes and buildings as storage, providing valuable flexibility. Combined with the fully digitised and automated operation of a network relying on smart meters, heating and cooling production can be more easily matched with demand, maximising efficiency.

The Saclay system shows that clean, smart and efficient district heat can play an important role in decarbonising our buildings.

With the planned addition of solar photovoltaics to the rooftops of the connected buildings, smart management and thermal storage will help make the best use of the electricity generated, running the heat pumps whenever the sun is shining and storing the heat until it is needed later in the day.

As an added benefit of digitised operations, leaks and faults can be detected and fixed more easily, quickly reducing system losses and downtime.

The challenge ahead

The Saclay system shows that clean, smart and efficient district heat can play an important role in decarbonising our buildings, allowing operators to tap into largely unused sources of renewable and excess heat while providing important flexibility and storage benefits by coupling the heat and electricity sectors.

The Paris systems represent different generations of district heating. The old system is one of the few remaining that still uses steam as a heat carrier. The Saclay heat and cold exchange network, by contrast, is of the newest generation, combining low temperatures and efficient infrastructure with digitised and smart operation—and largely relying on heat that is renewable or would otherwise go to waste.

Yet, this juxtaposition also shows the challenge to realise the great potential of district heat. There are hundreds of smaller and larger district heating systems across Europe that will need to be modernised and decarbonised. At the same time, many areas currently hooked up to a gas grid will have to shift to clean sources, including through newly built district heat.

A version of this article, part one of a three-part series, originally appeared on Foresight Climate & Energy.

Photo: Sem Oxenaar

Prudent Gas System Planning Can Minimize Risk

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According to the American Gas Association, from 2018 to 2020, natural gas utilities added an average of 753,619 customers and 20,724 miles of pipeline each year. This equates to adding more than one customer per minute and more than 2.4 miles of pipe per hour over that timeframe.

Building Modernization Legislative Toolkit At the same time, however, consumers are showing increased interest in alternatives to gas, such as electric heat pumps. New state and local building codes are limiting emissions from new appliances or otherwise restricting or discouraging gas equipment installations, and states are putting in place decarbonization policies that require limitations on future emissions from gas distribution utilities. These trends collectively hint at a future of a declining customer base for gas utilities, and that in turn is driving customer, advocate and policymaker concerns about stranded assets. The risk is that those customers least able to afford alternatives to gas would be forced to shoulder more of the cost to run the gas system.

From the perspective of public regulatory commissions, investments being made by gas utilities today are expected to serve customer energy needs reliably and equitably throughout the useful life of those investments. However, in many cases, current regulatory processes and tools used to evaluate gas utility investment decisions are not designed to adequately reflect these countervailing uncertainties and risks.

The planning and regulatory processes for gas are not directly coordinated with electric system planning processes, and as a result they are unable to quantify a range of potential long-term risks and benefits for customers. Specifically, regulators are lacking insights that can be gained from transparent tools that can model major uncertainties in long-term planning assumptions. These uncertainties include the degree and speed of decline in customer demand, as well as the cost and availability of alternative gas resources that are less emissions-intense than fossil gas.

Many important questions facing our energy systems can be explored within updated gas utility planning, with decision support tools and consideration of complementary regulatory tools (such as revised line extension policies and accelerated depreciation) to mitigate increasing costs to customers.

What States Are Doing

At least 10 states have recently engaged in a regulatory proceeding exploring some aspect of the gas utility system transition: California, Colorado, Connecticut, Hawaii, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New York, Nevada, Oregon and Washington. Bills addressing some aspect of gas planning or line extensions have been introduced in Nevada, Vermont, Rhode Island, Maryland, Oregon and Massachusetts. Although the specific driver behind each state’s proceedings varies, the underlying consistent theme is one of exploration of uncertainties and minimization of risks to customers.

For example, Washington passed legislation in 2021 requiring that the Washington Utilities and Transportation Commission open an investigation to evaluate pathways for electric and gas utilities to achieve their share of greenhouse gas emissions reductions. An independent third party is to conduct the study, to which stakeholders will supply data and other input. Since two of the three investor-owned gas utilities operating in the state are gas only, this process could yield best practices for coordinating the sharing of customer and planning data between gas and electric utilities. The legislature also funded the study to be managed through the public utility commission (PUC), so no additional ratepayer funds need to be collected by utilities to enable the study. Although not complete yet, the study development process is well underway.

Another example of gas planning evolution comes from Colorado, where legislators passed S.B. 21-2646, a bill that requires gas utilities to file Clean Heat Plans pursuant to PUC regulations. These plans much achieve a 4% reduction in greenhouse gas emissions from 2015 levels by 2025 and a 22% reduction by 2030, using a mix of supply-side resources, including energy efficiency, beneficial electrification, recovered methane and green hydrogen. The PUC issued a decision in December 2022, and the first utility plans will be filed in 2023.

Other gas-planning developments have focused on line extensions. Another 2021 Washington bill, H.B. 1084, precludes cross-subsidization of line extensions for residential and commercial customers. It requires new customers to cover the full cost of the new line extension rather than allowing the cost (or part of the cost) of new service to be allocated among all gas customers. This reallocation of costs has the effect of more appropriately reflecting system cost to new users. Note it does not apply to new customers on an existing gas line but only to new line extensions for a new development or service area.

An Accelerating Trend

Washington and Colorado are not alone, as states, utility commissions and utilities grapple with new scenarios that don’t fit into old processes. According to a McKinsey article, “gas utilities could face a range of scenarios, including high rates of electrification with significantly declining gas consumption, or more moderated electrification with transitions to biogas, carbon capture, or hydrogen. As gas utilities consider different decarbonization pathways, they will need to plan for different business trajectories amid the uncertainty.” Consequently, business-as-usual planning is no longer serving the gas sector well. States and commissions across the country are recognizing the need to review and update their planning approaches.

Leadership from policymakers, particularly at the legislative level, can provide needed guidance and authority to utility commissions, helping to dismantle the silos of gas and electricity planning and allowing for fuel-neutral planning in the public interest.

Transforming the Appliance Market: Strategies for Lower-Emissions Heat and Hot Water

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Fossil-fueled appliances in buildings are a significant source of emissions, not only of greenhouse gases but also pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are responsible for a variety of air and water quality and health problems. A model rule recently developed and published by RAP proposes an approach to regulating NOx emissions from water heaters over time. The goal is to drive transformation of the market for these appliances, particularly through adoption of efficient electric heat pump models. Similar appliance emission rules are already in place for water heaters and furnaces in the Bay Area of California and elsewhere, and other agencies are likely to follow suit.

To make such a transformation smooth for households, new appliance technology must be affordable and accessible. In an interactive webinar, panelists from RAP, RMI, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation discussed the keys to transforming this market, from innovative appliance standards to consumer-friendly pilot programs.

Transforming the Appliance Market: Strategies for Lower-Emissions Heat and Hot Water

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Fossil-fueled appliances in buildings are a significant source of emissions, not only of greenhouse gases but also pollutants such as nitrogen oxides (NOx), which are responsible for a variety of air and water quality and health problems. In a webinar presentation, panelists from RAP, RMI, Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management and the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation discussed ways to drive transformation of the appliance market to reduce emissions.

Integrate to zero: Policies for on-site, on-road, on-grid distributed energy resource integration

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To meet decarbonisation goals, global renewable power capacity will need to more than triple by 2030, according to leading energy agencies. Centralised renewable generation will not deliver this level of change on its own, nor should it. Distributed energy resources (DERs) such as heat pumps, electric vehicles, small-scale solar generation and battery storage are essential to ensuring that clean power is the most affordable and reliable option for all countries.

Distributed energy resources must be effectively integrated with the grid if they are to fulfil their potential. Integration allows them to be used flexibly to draw power from or feed power into the grid according to the value their flexibility provides to the electricity system. This reduces carbon emissions from fossil generation used to meet peaks in electricity demand, increases system resilience, and benefits all consumers through the lower prices resulting from avoided generation and network capacity costs.

RAP sets out four key policy approaches that will help promote the effective integration of behind-the-meter distributed energy resources:

  1. A strong set of enabling policies can remove barriers to DER integration. Together, they augment the flexibility potential of DERs and enable their participation in power system optimisation.
  2. Price signals should reflect power system optimisation needs. Payments for energy services should vary in proportion to how much, when and where they are used or delivered.
  3. Cost-reflective price signals should be combined with fair market access for distributed energy resources. With nondiscriminatory access to energy service markets and with pricing that reflects the full value of DERs, third-party service providers can shield consumers from price volatility in return for flexible management of DERs within agreed boundaries.
  4. International collaboration among policymakers and regulators can spread best practice. Cross-border knowledge transfer among regulators is a growing phenomenon and can help each place to find its own way, guided by local circumstances, politics and experience.

The authors explore each of these insights in greater detail. They also highlight best practices from around the world, with contributions from RAP colleagues Raj Addepalli, Max Dupuy and Jessica Shipley.

In the Electrification Push, Familiar Tools Get Repurposed

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Stephen King wrote, “Sooner or later, everything old is new again.” Many “new” regulatory approaches to encourage building electrification are actually just new applications of tried-and-true methods policymakers have been using for years. Take, for example, clean heat standards, which some states (e.g., Colorado and Vermont) are considering or have implemented. A clean heat standard requires heating fuel companies to gradually increase the amount of clean energy they use to provide heat to customers. This is analogous to a renewable portfolio standard for electric companies, which has been widely used by states for many years to drive adoption of clean electricity generation technologies. Building Modernization Legislative Toolkit

Other policy approaches to building electrification similarly draw on experience and expertise that regulators have honed over the years. For example, regulators have been overseeing and directing utility plans and programs for investments in energy efficiency for many years, which can inform similar plans and programs for building electrification.

Some may require revisiting or revising existing policy and regulatory approaches to enable the new opportunities presented by building electrification. Others will require regulators to expand existing efforts — for example, to focus benefits and harm reduction on low-income and overburdened communities.

Our building modernization toolkit provides examples and options for decision-makers that include ways states can electrify buildings through public utility commissions and utilities.

  1. Directing utilities to file plans for electrifying buildings with their public utility commission. This engages utilities and their expertise in electrification activities and enlists the regulators in making sure utilities are acting as intended.
  2. Removing existing barriers in state policy. For example, state policy may forbid fuel-switching, which is a direct barrier to electrification. Removing this provision and other barriers can help level the playing field for electric technologies and promote electrification without requiring utilities to take other actions.
  3. Focusing electrification and other efforts on low-income and overburdened communities, particularly those with the highest energy burden. This can be a highly effective way to combat energy inequality and ensure that the hardest-to-electrify customers are prioritized.
  4. Setting fuel-neutral emissions reduction standards (e.g., clean heat standards) for delivered heating providers. This builds on state experience with renewable energy standards for electricity and engages fossil fuel companies in the creation of solutions for the heating sector.

All these approaches are being pursued by states in various forms. We expect this trend of involving utilities and regulators in building electrification to continue as more states recognize the cost, emissions and health benefits of transitioning away from direct combustion of fossil fuel in buildings. For example, it seems likely that interest in clean heat standards will continue to grow and that utilities will be interested in ways they can make investments to support electrification. States with carbon goals will begin looking to reduced fossil fuel use for meaningful greenhouse gas emissions reductions, and health concerns may drive even greater interest in electric technologies. Policymakers can help their states get ahead and start proactively planning for cost-effective building electrification.