Clean energy journalism for a cooler tomorrow

Need help breaking up with fossil fuels? Ask an electric coach’

Electrification is hard. That’s why Rewiring America is training 1,000 coaches this year to guide neighbors through getting heat pumps, solar and more.
By Alison F. Takemura

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Woman with dark hair talks to man with white sideburns and beard on the sidewalk.
Volunteer electrification coach Lisa Ryers talks to her neighbor at their annual block party in San Francisco’s Potrero Hill neighborhood. (Deanna McDougall)

Canary Media’s Electrified Life column shares real-world tales, tips and insights to demystify what individuals can do to shift their homes and lives to clean electric power. 

David Stile knew his air conditioner wasn’t long for this world. It was already 24 years old — ancient for an AC — and he wanted to replace it before it broke. The project would come with hassle and expense, but in it Stile also saw an opportunity. He could switch over to a heat pump. That way, he’d get a new AC and heater in one fell swoop — and slash his home’s carbon pollution too.

Making the jump to an electric heat pump can be one of the most challenging home-electrification projects. The Internet teems with information about the tech, but it’s not easy to navigate — or to apply to your own unique situation, said Stile, who lives in Falls Church, Virginia. So last November, before he committed to an installation that would cost at least $10,000, Stile reached out to his local climate group and asked if anyone could help him figure out this HVAC transition. I wanted to understand what I was getting myself into,” said the 38-year-old.

The person who answered his call was electrification coach Bob Soule, 69. He’s been concerned about the climate crisis since the 1990s, when he first learned about its dire implications for his field of national security. Now retired from his 40-year career, Soule has installed solar panels on his roof, done an electric road trip to all the national parks in the lower 48 states, and electrified almost everything in his home. He delights in passing on his hard-won knowledge to others looking to ditch fossil fuels.

Soule is part of a growing network of home-electrification coaches who are appearing across the country like blazes on a trail. The volunteers, trained by nonprofit Rewiring America, not only raise local awareness about home clean-energy solutions but also help neighbors navigate the sometimes daunting process of switching to heat pumps, heat-pump water heaters, induction stoves, EVs, and more.

Rewiring America’s coaching network is 125 coaches strong, with another 175 set to graduate from their 4-week, 8-hour-plus online training today. The coaches reside in 24 states, from California and Colorado to New York and South Carolina. Collectively, they’ve completed 32 consultations since the program began in October, said Madeline Gryll, senior director of audience at the nonprofit.

The challenge of electrifying homes is so vast that it’s almost mind-boggling. According to the U.S. Department of Energy’s Advanced Building Construction Collaborative, a staggering 115 million out of 125 million housing units in the U.S. need to adopt electric appliances to align with a net-zero future.

And even with subsidies, these upgrades generally aren’t cheap, which puts the pressure on people investing in them to choose wisely. Though the exact costs range widely depending on many factors — such as the home condition, contractor experience, materials and labor market, available incentives, and selected equipment — fully electrifying a fossil-fueled home can cost upwards of $60,000.

Yet the personal decision to go electric can have a massive impact on carbon pollution. More than 40 percent of U.S. energy emissions stem from the choices people make around the kitchen table, including where they get their electricity, how they heat and cool their homes, and what they drive, according to Rewiring America.

By training volunteers like Soule to be what the nonprofit calls electric coaches,” Rewiring America is aiming to seed a grassroots movement to electrify every home in the country.

What electric coaches can do

It turns out there’s a lot to learn from your peers when it comes to electrification — especially when you have an experienced aficionado like Soule in your community.

Per Soule’s recommendation, Stile got an energy audit first — something Soule wished he had done early on — in case weatherization improvements would reduce the size of the heat pump he’d need. (Stile’s home turned out to be in good shape.) To help Stile estimate heat pump size, Soule calculated Stile’s heating load for him. And because Soule lives nearby in Alexandria, Virginia, he was able to recommend some local contractors. When Stile got quotes, Soule helped him figure out whether different proposed heat-pump models would qualify for the Inflation Reduction Act’s federal tax credit — and reassured him that he wouldn’t need a gas-system backup.

Soule was also available via email or phone to answer the many questions that cropped up for Stile over the four-month process of getting the heat pump. Bob was very thorough and generous in his responses,” Stile said. So I kind of latched on.”

Soule emphasized that he and other coaches aren’t replacements for HVAC professionals; they’re not (usually) technical experts. But with support from an electric coach, you’re armed with a lot of knowledge that makes you a more educated consumer,” he said. That’s important when you’re dealing with these complex pieces of equipment, he noted.

Stile had his heat pump installed in February. While he’s not sure if it’ll beat his old gas-fired system on monthly utility costs alone, the new heat pump already trounces it on comfort. The heat pump is providing more even heat, especially with the installation of the system’s new air handler. He’s also noticed that the outdoor unit is much quieter than his thundering old AC used to be.

In left image, a man stands indoors next to large, beige, boxy HVAC equipment. On right, a grey vented appliance outside.
David Stile of Falls Church, Virginia, had a new heat pump installed with the help of electric coach Bob Soule. Stile is standing next to the indoor unit in the left photo; the outdoor unit is shown on the right. (Courtesy of David Stile)

This kind of knowledge transfer is exactly what Travis Estes had in mind when he helped develop Rewiring’s coaching program. Advocates at the local level play such a tremendous role,” said the chief operating officer at Abode Energy Management, a home decarbonization consultancy that contributed much of the technical content to Rewiring America’s training. Coaches help people get excited about what it takes to electrify.”

Conversations about how to select home clean-energy upgrades such as solar, EVs, or heat pumps pop up everywhere from the sidelines of Little League” to the town’s community Facebook group, Estes said. Those bite-size exchanges are crucial for normalizing these technologies. Just as public solar campaigns helped rooftop solar spread in Massachusetts in the 2010s, Estes anticipates Rewiring America’s national electric coaches initiative will help electrification take off.

Beyond working with proactive electrifiers like Stile, Soule says he’s had serendipitous conversations too. In January, he was getting weatherization work done, which involved a big truck blowing cellulose insulation into the attic, and a curious neighbor asked him what the deal was. I gave him my pitch,” Soule said. And a few weeks later, sure enough, I see a truck in his driveway pumping insulation into his attic.”

Man pushing lawn mower next to dog on green grass.
Electric coach Bob Soule loves his home’s electric machines, especially his electric lawn mower. It’s so quiet, he said, his dog Annie didn’t budge until he was headed right toward her. (Courtesy of Bob Soule)

You might find an electric coach near you

Rewiring America plans to train 1,000 electric coaches this year — and more after that — at least half of whom will work in disadvantaged communities. The nonprofit doesn’t yet have a way to match interested folks to coaches, though it’s part of the roadmap, Gryll said. In the interim, we’re working to build out ways for people who are using our consumer tools, like the personal electrification planner, to connect with a coach for extra support.” She expects that ability to go live in the second half of the year.

Alternatively, you — like Stile — might find a Rewiring America coach just by reaching out to your community climate group. Many of the coaches are involved in local chapters of Citizens’ Climate Lobby, The Climate Reality Project, Third Act, or Elders Climate Action, Gryll said.

There are also loads of other state and local organizations offering differing degrees of personal electrification guidance that you might be able to tap into. Just a smattering of options include Go Electric Colorado, Massachusetts’ HeatSmart Alliance, Electrify PDX (Portland), Electrify DC, and New York’s Regional Clean Energy Hubs.

If you’re feeling especially proactive, you could apply to become an electric coach yourself. Rewiring America’s next training starts May 23. Then — who knows? — maybe you’ll be the neighbor gushing about insulation and heat pumps.

* Correction: The article originally misstated Bob Soule’s age. We regret the error.

Alison F. Takemura is staff writer at Canary Media. She reports on home electrification, building decarbonization strategies and the clean energy workforce.