August 2011

Electric Cars Open Up New IBEW Opportunities
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Skyrocketing oil prices, the revival of the auto industry and pressure on the Big Three from lawmakers and aggressive Japanese competitors are spurring a new drive to make the mass-marketed electric car a reality.

And as a competitive race unfolds before our eyes, IBEW members are already doing the work installing the electrical infrastructure and developing a training curriculum to get the United States ready for gas-free transportation.

"There is no question that these are the cars of the future," says Kevin Lynch, the electrical program coordinator at Chicago Local 134's training center. "Oil prices are just too high."

Back in 2006, the sad state of the electric car industry was best summed up by filmmaker Chris Paine's documentary "Who Killed the Electric Car?", which chronicled the story of General Motors' failed efforts to market the first ever mass-produced electric car—the EV1. The car was discontinued in 2002, causing many to question whether the Big Three would ever get serious about developing an electric car that could free us of our dependency on big oil.

The answer may be found in the title of Paine's sequel, which premiered in April: "Revenge of the Electric Car."

New York Times journalist Joe Nocera writes that "people who follow the car business like to say that this particular moment in automotive history is the closest we'll ever come to seeing what the industry was like a century ago … the race is on to come up with an affordable, mass-market electric car."

Last year, General Motors unveiled the most fuel-efficient compact car sold in the United States, the Chevy Volt, a plug-in hybrid that was named the 2011 Motor Trend Car of the year. Ford is also getting into the market with its Focus Electric, a 100 percent gas-free car which is expected to go on sale next year.

And while the sticker price on these new models are on the high end—the Volt goes for more than $40,000—a $7,500 tax credit, not to mention the long-term savings that come with gas-free transportation, is expected to boost affordability.


Successfully marketing the electric car will require building a new network of hundreds of thousands of charging stations—both in commercial and residential venues—where owners can plug in their vehicles.

"Your average shopping mall might have seven charging stations," says Lynch, envisioning a not-too-distant future. "Not to mention charging stations in many homes. That is a lot of electrical man-hours."

All which could mean thousands of new jobs for IBEW members sitting on the bench. But getting inside wiremen ready for these new positions requires training, a challenge being taken up by a new coalition of electrical trainers, contractors and auto manufacturers.

In April, Local 134 hosted the first-ever master train-the-trainer program for the installation and maintenance of electrical charging stations. The event was sponsored by the Electric Vehicle Infrastructure Training Program, a broad-based national industry collaborative which was formed late last year. It is made up of automakers, utilities, charging station manufacturers, universities and community colleges, NECA contractors and JATC electrical training centers.

The gathering brought together IBEW members from more than 20 states, as well as NECA contractors and representatives from GM and Ford for a two-day intensive session.

"We gave attendees the curriculum so they could take it back to their training centers to get instructors up to speed on the program," says Lynch, who serves as co-chair of the group's curriculum committee.

The goal is to develop a national training and certification program for the installation of charging stations for residential and commercial customers, says program co-chair Bernie Kotlier, who also serves as director of green energy solutions for the California Labor Management Cooperation Committee—a joint partnership between the IBEW and signatory contractors. Courses are now available at joint apprenticeship training centers and community colleges in 21 states.

Program participants say electric car infrastructure work should only be done by experienced electricians.

"We're talking live electricity here, and it should be handled by those who know how to safely work around it," Lynch says. "And working with skilled electricians means you get the best bang for your training dollar."

Participants are not only trained in the technical side of things. They are also being prepped to become the public face of the electric car.

"We need electricians to be able to talk to their customers about every aspect of being an electric car owner," Lynch said.

With more than 70 percent of installations expected to come on the residential side, one-on-one customer service is a core part of the program's curriculum.

"All the industry participants are operating outside of our regular comfort zones," says Barbara Cox, director of green energy grants for the California LMCC and co-chair of the training consortium. "Obviously auto companies have an interest in customer service, but they don't have much contact with them once they leave the dealership. And utility companies want to know how the chargers will affect the total load, but once again they don't hold discussions at your house," making it the installers' jobs to interface with the owners.

"Being able to communicate to the electric car owner in regular language about the technology is vital," Cox says.

The IBEW has already started putting members to work putting up charging stations, a demand that will grow substantially in the next year.

Laying the Groundwork

In targeted states ranging from Hawaii to Missouri, automakers are rolling out new electric vehicle models and working with contractors to help make sure the appropriate charging infrastructure is in place to meet the growing demand.

To really create a market for electric vehicles means there has to be a massive push to get charging stations up and running. Manufacturers aim to have 475,000 up by 2015.

"We're still at the tip of the iceberg, but the potential is huge," says Tom Bowes, assistant training director for the Detroit Electrical Industry Training Center, which is affiliated with Detroit Local 58. Michigan already has more than 200 electric vehicle charging stations in place, and Bowes sees more much work coming down the road. The center has already put more than 40 journeyman wiremen through the course, which Bowes hopes to expand in the coming year.

San Jose, Calif., Local 332 is another location that has recently been approved as a training site. "This will help our contractors participate and take advantage of the growing electric vehicle industry," says Santa Clara County Electrical JATC Training Director Daniel Romero. Its first class starts August 20.

One major obstacle to marketing electric cars is what is known in the industry as "range anxiety." With an average range of 40 miles per charge, many customers are worried that electric cars can't match the distances they get from gas-power vehicles.

But as General Motors pointed out in a recent study, nearly 80 percent of Americans commute less than 40 miles a day. And better battery technology and more charging stations across the country will help reduce drivers' stress about running out of power.

"You have to remember that when cars were first introduced—long before gas stations went up everywhere—Americans had the same concerns," Cox says.

Tom Bowes says one of the most hopeful signs has been the aggressiveness by NECA contractors in going after charging station installation work.

"They are really targeting it," he says. And more charging stations means a bigger market for gas-free cars.

"This is a way to get electricians to work right now," Cox says.

Trained IBEW members are needed to install charging stations for mass-marketed electric cars like the new Chevy Volt. Photo credit: General Motors

IBEW members from across the country joined automakers, dealers, utilities, NECA contractors and educators at the first-ever master train-the-trainer program for the installation and maintenance of electrical charging stations.

The Electric Car:
A Blast from the Past?

This early ancestor of the electric car dates back to 1900. This image was published in the December 1967 issue of the IBEW Journal.

Vintage science fiction novels are occasionally prescient, having forecasted future developments like manned space travel, cloning and wireless phone technology.

But when a forward-looking article entitled "The Electric Car: Dream or Reality?" hit the pages of the IBEW Journal in December 1967, it looked less like science fiction and more like a reasonable next step for the auto industry.

An eight-page analysis of what was then a prospective revival of the electric car—which was phased out of production in the early 1930s as the gas-powered engine gained prominence—paints a picture of American society enamored with automotive transport but starting to experience the downside of having more cars on the road.

"The polluted air that envelops our cities and adversely affects the health and well-being of our citizens," the piece states, "is reason enough for the development and marketing of the electric car."

Accompanied by diagrams, artistic renderings and vintage photographs, the article expounds on the demonstrated science behind the machine while opining on issues that have come to dominate today's discussion of electric cars' feasibility, including how to repower batteries. "The car could be recharged overnight, during off-peak hours, reducing the cost of battery power," the Journal reports. "Or, instead of recharging batteries, there could be a battery rental system with battery exchange stations similar to gasoline stations setup at regular intervals." The latter suggestion is still being batted around in research and development departments of automobile companies.

Cars like the American-made Ford Escape Hybrid may have been three decades away, but the article mentions what has now become a growing trend: "It has been suggested that a hybrid (gasoline-electric) car be marketed first and that the all-electric car [will] follow. After all, improvements in the electric car will have to come along as the car is used and accepted."

Historical events like the 1973 oil crisis and the formation of the Environmental Protection Agency were still years away at the time of the article's publication, but readers get a taste of the social import. "California officials are so concerned about air pollution that they have suggested the banning of gasoline engine cars in the state by 1980 for survival," the piece states.

In the 1967 story, readers also learn about Ford Motor Co.'s effort to develop a marketable carbon-free vehicle ("10 years off," we wrote) as well as other concepts like steam-powered engines that never materialized. Other companies like Renault, Westinghouse and Chrysler are mentioned as having been possible pioneers in the market, and their prototypes are profiled.

The article envisioned the invention as "promise for the electrical industry," saying that "many of our members would play a big role in [the electric cars'] development, manufacture and maintenance.

"It does seem to be a reality," the piece concludes, "or are we just dreaming?"

Read the December 1967 article, "The Electric Car: Dream or Reality," on page 12.