California Public Utility Commission agrees: A skilled, trained, and diverse workforce is the key to achieving efficiency goals

California requires everyone from hair stylists and food handlers to doctors and lawyers to hold occupational credentials to work in California. But when it comes to the complex work of revamping homes and buildings to reduce wasted energy, anything goes… at least until a month ago.

January 11, 2019

This guest post is written by: John J. O’Rourke, International Vice President, I.B.E.W. Ninth District; Rick Werner, President, Western States Council of the International Association of Sheet Metal, Air, Rail and Transportation; and Greg Partch, Executive Director of the CA State Pipe Trades Council

Now, new rules adopted by the California Public Utilities Commission (CPUC) will ensure that when utility incentives are used for certain efficiency upgrades, the workers installing the equipment must be properly trained, and that efficiency programs create pathways to employment for disadvantaged workers.

This decision is the result of several large CPUC-commissioned studies that documented the need to transform energy efficiency programs to support the development of, and the demand for, skilled workers in order to maximize both the energy savings and the economic benefits of these programs. A broad coalition including labor, community, and environmental partners has been working to encourage the CPUC to adopt these workforce recommendations. This is a great example of environmental groups like the Sierra Club, the Coalition for Clean Air, and NRDC working with equity and labor organizations. We, along with other partners including the BlueGreen Alliance, came together because we see the inextricable link between investing in a skilled energy efficiency workforce and reducing greenhouse gas emissions.

The CPUC decision is a huge leap forward for the professionalization of the energy efficiency industry. It enhances consumer and investor confidence in energy efficiency investments, and it will unlock savings typically foregone because of complexity or faulty installation. It sends an important signal to thousands of workers that have gone through rigorous training, that their skills and experience have a place in the California energy efficiency market, and creates openings for disadvantaged workers to access energy efficiency careers.

Leaders and climate experts have long touted the importance of energy efficient buildings in meeting the state’s climate goals. Energy efficiency has been considered the highest priority resource for meeting California’s future energy needs. SB 350 requires a statewide doubling of building energy efficiency by 2030, and every three years the California Energy Commission (CEC) adopts a more stringent Title 24 building code.

These energy efficiency goals are bold and ambitious, and our unions representing electricians, sheet metal workers, and plumbers and pipefitters have invested our own funds in upgrading our own facilities and developing curriculum to train workers in emerging and advanced technologies. These investments demonstrate our commitment to helping customers reap the expected benefits of efficiency and to helping the state meet its energy and climate goals.

With the new set of rules from the CPUC, our members and contractors can finally deploy our skills in service to the investor-owned utilities’ energy efficiency programs.

Each year, the utilities spend about $1.2 billion to incentivize adoption of promising energy efficiency equipment. Until a month ago, there were no skill requirements for any of the workers installing this equipment, despite known pervasive installation quality issues. Now, nonresidential HVAC projects receiving $3,000 or more in ratepayer incentives must employ workers who meet training requirements such as completion of apprenticeship programs, work experience, and a skills test. The rules also require that for lighting control projects receiving $2,000 or more in incentives installers must by certified by the California Advanced Lighting Controls Training Program (CALCTP). In addition, all new investor-owned utilities’ energy efficiency programs must identify relevant workforce standards applicable to the energy efficiency measures the program supports, including any specific skills, certification or occupational training that would reduce the risk of lost energy savings from poor installation.

In the complex work of energy efficiency, higher skill often translates into more energy savings. According to the California Energy Commission, poorly installed HVAC systems increase energy use by 20 to 40 percent. What seems like a moderate increase becomes a significant concern when you consider that up to 85 percent of replacement HVAC systems in California are installed incorrectly.

Hiring untrained, unlicensed, underpaid workers compromises the performance and durability of energy efficiency systems. And in doing so, it undermines California’s climate goals.

Getting energy efficiency equipment installed right isn’t easy. In order to ensure that our members have the skills, knowledge and training to ensure proper installation and maintenance, we are committed to keeping up with the latest energy efficiency technology, including installing cutting edge technologies into our own buildings – such as the zero-net-energy IBEW training center in San Leandro. This investment is worth it. When you hire our members, you know that you will maximize the performance of your energy efficiency investments. You also support apprenticeship programs that provide middle-class career pathways for disadvantaged workers that may otherwise be trapped in a cycle of poverty.

For too long, utility energy efficiency programs subsidized contractors that cut costs by using untrained workers at poverty level wages. Utility energy efficiency programs are funded by ratepayer dollars, and ratepayers deserved better. The CPUC’s decision now protects this investment by ensuring that the measures it funds are installed by contractors that invest in a properly trained energy efficiency workforce. The decision also ensures that disadvantaged workers will now have meaningful access to the jobs created by the billions of dollars of ratepayer money invested in energy efficiency programs. It is no wonder that these requirements were supported by ratepayer advocate groups such as TURN (The Utility Reform Network) and the CPUC’s independent Public Advocates Office. We applaud the CPUC for taking this action.