Some electric cars can power devices and even homes during blackouts and other extreme weather events.
The morning after Hurricane Ian knocked out power to Westley and Sarah Ferguson’s home in Haines City, Fla., a southwest suburb of Orlando, Westley ran two extension cords into their home from outlets in the Ford F-150 Lightning in the couple. He plugged the refrigerator into one and a power strip into the second, which soon turned on lamps, fans, and a television.
The Fergusons’ setup was more rudimentary than the Lightning’s design allows—Ford’s top-of-the-line home charger will automatically start powering an entire house if the truck is plugged in during a blackout—but it was good enough for them. cook beef stew on an electric stove, and then entertain another couple from the neighborhood for an impromptu movie night. Cellular and internet service was also down, so they used a Blu-ray player to watch Casper and a turntable to play big band jazz records. “There was nowhere we needed to go,” says Westley, a 33-year-old web designer. “So we stayed home.”
The Fergusons, who have been in Florida since 2013 and survived Hurricane Irma, weren’t thinking about natural disasters when they ordered their Lightning in May of last year. Westley had long wanted an EV and Sarah, who works in health care administration, wanted a truck to haul things for her side business of hosting picnics. Before Ian, they had mostly used the truck’s 12 power outlets, spread between the bed, cabin, and trunk, for overnights on the Space Coast.
“You want to use it when you go camping or have a tailgate. Those are the fun party tricks,” says Westley. “You really don’t want it to be a lifesaver to cook dinner or turn on the lights. But it was definitely good to have him.”
While Ford has made bi-directional charging and the ability to power a home “if needed” a routine selling point in TV ads for Lightning, evidence suggests most EV buyers are like Ferguson: Disaster preparedness barely influences your thinking. In a survey of more than 1,500 US electric vehicle owners commissioned by Bloomberg Green, none of the 1% of respondents who provided their own reasons for buying an electric car mentioned it. Most cited cost savings and environmental benefits.
“Nothing in our market research indicates that emergency preparedness is a notable purchase motive in the electric vehicle market,” says Mark Schirmer, a spokesman for the Cox Automotive research shop, which routinely surveys buyers about their decisions. shopping. “Consumers primarily prioritize price, monthly payment, range and style. Emergency preparedness is perhaps a nice thing to have.”
But while it may not drive sales, EVs’ backup power potential is a bonus that can delight owners and cement their loyalty. After Westley posted images of his experience with the storm on social media, Ford CEO Jim Farley shared them on his LinkedIn account, saying the company saw an increase in owners using vehicles in this way afterward. of the storm
Bidirectional charging, also known as two-way charging, comes in different varieties. Ford is one of the few automakers in the US market to offer models with vehicle-to-home (V2H) capability, where the flow of electricity through a home charger can be reversed, allowing the car to power an entire home. . These configurations open up the possibility of vehicle-to-grid, or V2G, systems, where utilities use idle electric vehicles to help manage charging. (V2G trials are already underway in Europe and the US.) But even some on-board power outlets for plugging in appliances, known as vehicle-to-charge (V2L) charging, can come in handy in a pinch, like when a Texas urologist used his Rivian truck to perform a vasectomy during a power outage. .
The night before Ian made landfall, Christine Cannella plugged her Rivian R1T truck into the charger at her gated community in Fort Myers, Florida, to recharge the battery. When Ian arrived, Cannella’s house lost power for five days; the truck became the backrest for her. Rivian doesn’t yet offer V2H charging, but Cannella used the R1T’s onboard outlets to make coffee and cook hot dogs on an electric grill for her and her son. When the house got too muggy, she and her cockapoo puppy slept in the backseat with the air conditioning on “pet comfort” mode. “I am not a camper. I’m not an outdoorsy person,” she says. “But it became a tremendous utility for me and my family during those 48 hours.”
Cannella, 51, had never owned an electric vehicle before her Rivian, which she has been driving since late last year. She bought it, she says, mainly because she works for the company. (Cannella joined Rivian in the fall of 2020 as senior labor and employment adviser. Bloomberg Green learned of her story from a Rivian spokesperson.) But the next time a storm hits, she intends to make more use of the truck. “I plan to plug in my refrigerator,” she says. “I was so afraid that it would drain the battery too much. I’ve since learned that I should have done that instead of throwing away all my food.”
Until recently, most of the attention on electric vehicles and natural disasters has focused on potential problems. In a 2018 article in Energy Policy, researchers took the scenario of a storm evacuee leaving Key West, Florida, in a Nissan Leaf and found there likely wouldn’t be enough public chargers to avoid being stranded. Further investigation has shown the possibility of cascading network failures in Florida as many EV evacuees attempt to recharge simultaneously. Both scenarios involve hurricanes, where there is usually the luxury of preparation; Sudden events like wildfires and tsunamis pose even greater risks.
“I would encourage people to do outlet studies,” says Shawn Adderly, program manager at Pacific Gas and Electric in San Francisco and lead author of the 2018 paper, “so we know how many charging stations we should have and where to put them. based on anticipated traffic jams.”
Policymakers have only recently begun to take natural disasters into account when planning for EV infrastructure. Florida’s electric vehicle roadmap, released in 2020, anticipates that the state will need faster chargers along evacuation routes as electric vehicle adoption increases. Last year, the state Department of Environmental Protection awarded Blink Charging Co. millions of dollars in grants to place dozens at strategic points along evacuation routes, most of which will include modular battery storage so they can continue to function during network failures. (Florida already has a law on the books that requires some gas stations along evacuation routes to have an alternate power source for their pumps.)
While meeting the power demands of electric vehicles during grid outages will require more planning and infrastructure, the experience of the Fergusons and others in Florida after Ian demonstrates the potential benefits of electrifying the US fleet as As buses and other public vehicles also become electrified, two-way charging could be used to power shelters and other emergency services or even help back up faulty networks. “It’s not going to be all doom and gloom,” says Adderly.
Jeremy Judkins lives in North Port, on the Gulf Coast between Sarasota and Fort Myers. Judkins, a 33-year-old former banker, now spends his time making videos for TikTok, YouTube and other social media platforms, many of them focused on the Tesla Model X Plaid edition he got in May of this year and solar panels and Tesla. Powerwall batteries that he installed in 2020.
Ian hit North Port hard, knocking out power, washing out bridges and flooding streets. The storm, Judkins says, was “like a very small tornado outside your house for six hours.” There was no power in his neighborhood for eight days, but Judkins’ home was never without power.
Tesla still doesn’t offer V2H charging or standard power outlets on any of its models, a source of frustration for Judkins and other owners. “People are really pushing like, ‘Elon, why don’t you make your vehicles power your house?’” he says. But Judkins was still able to use the 100-kilowatt-hour battery in his Model X to soak up excess power from his solar panels, turning his house and his car into charging centers for neighbors in need.
“I’m a lousy neighbor,” says Judkins. “Normally I don’t talk to them. But at this point, I have all this extra power. I feel bad. So I took my paddle board across the street and said, ‘Hey, I’ve got power and you can sit in my car’s air conditioner and charge up all your stuff.’