Electrical panels play a vital role in keeping a stream of power into our homes
By Lara Isaacson
It doesn’t take a health expert or climate scientist to know that we need to move away from burning fossil fuels, especially in how we power our homes. Many folks are considering solar or a switch to all-electric appliances in an effort to help decarbonize our buildings. Policies are popping up across California to speed up the transition. Utilities around the country have provided renewable energy credit options for years, and ENERGY STAR is a highly recognized label for efficient appliances. So what’s the hold up? Why haven’t all (or even most) homes made the switch?
Amongst the tangle of reasons, one unassuming barrier to the mass adoption of clean energy rests on the wall outside our homes or in a dark corner of our apartment buildings: the electrical panel. These little panels do the big job of metering our intake to keep a safe and steady stream of power coming into our homes. But for something so small, they are unexpectedly complex.
“Amongst the tangle of reasons, one unassuming barrier to the mass adoption of clean energy rests on the wall outside our homes or in a dark corner of our apartment buildings: the electrical panel.”
The Intervention Point
Through conversations with builders, homeowners and utilities, Build it Green staff began honing in on these seemingly insignificant panels as a key intervention point—one with the potential to trigger the rapid decarbonization we need in buildings. In order to put solar on a home or switch the heating appliance to an all-electric heat pump, there is often a panel upgrade needed or, at the very least, a thoughtful power-efficient plan. More electric devices can equal more electricity needed from the grid or just efficient appliances, which sounds simple but can be quite complicated.
Cost, Code and Cognitive Barriers
Electrical panel upgrades (or avoiding them while still electrifying) are at the center of a number of interconnected issues. The first, most obvious pain point is cost. The budget for upgrades typically includes the panels themselves, contractors, permits and utility service upgrades, which can cost up to tens of thousands of dollars.
The alternative is purchasing higher efficiency appliances or load sharing devices to avoid panel upgrades. This too can be expensive. Even with appliance incentives, there are the added challenges of obtaining a permit and hiring a contractor who is both available and familiar with incentive programs and installing high-performance technology (a unicorn in today’s economy). Additionally, if an upgrade is needed, the process can be confusing, with codes that are difficult to interpret and requirements that differ from city to city.
If the cost, contractor shortages and confusion aren’t off-putting enough, cognitive barriers may stop the process before it starts. Uncertainty around the rules leads to a greater perception of risks, and consumers can view energy-efficient and power-efficient appliances as inferior. Additionally, building officials and professionals alike may be unaware of how to safely maximize use of an existing panel to avoid upgrades.
Build It Green explored a few pathways to address these barriers, from piloting a workshop with a particular municipality and utility to making educational resources for homeowners. We met with city officials, utilities and builders to better understand who was responsible or invested at each stage. Eventually we were connected to a group of technical experts—including researchers, utility strategists, contractors, electricians and advocates—voicing the need for a forum to discuss issues and opportunities around panels.
We hosted the first meeting of what would become the Panel Upgrades Group (PUG) in December 2021. Since then, we’ve witnessed this group’s enthusiasm grow. Without prompting, they self-organized around a few critical areas: peer learning (on code interpretation and best practices for adopting new technology and safely avoiding panel upgrades), research alignment and data sharing for more effective electrification strategies and shifting the collective conversation away from individual behavioral change to empowering individuals by changing processes. At each convening, tangible steps develop that target deeply technical and systems oriented change.
Sustainability professionals often work with familiar contacts as they move agendas forward. We forget or don’t know how to collaborate across different practices and roles for quick, effective action. Yet, there are underappreciated changemakers in every field. The secret for unlocking electrification was known by those closest to the issue all along, and with a bit of neutral cross-sector space to wade through the details, their collective power emerged.
Want to get involved? PUG meets monthly to support this important key to decarbonizing buildings. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Lara Isaacson is a Program Associate at Build It Green, working on climate, equity, and housing.