A new function for electric vehicles: powering homes during power outages

In early March, strong winds downed trees and power lines in the Nashville area, knocking out power to thousands of homes. But about 20 miles outside of town, an electric pickup truck fed power to John and Rachel Regard’s home, and kept the lights on.

“You can look at all the houses around us, and they’re all out of business,” said Mr. Reigard, who bought the pickup, a Ford F-150 Lightning, over a year ago. “Many people ask the question:” How do you have strength? “

The Reigards are part of a small group of pioneers who are using batteries in their electric cars as a backup power source for their homes. Energy and automotive experts expect more people to do the same in the coming years as auto and energy companies make it easier for individuals and businesses to take advantage of the energy in electric vehicles for more than just driving.

Electric grids are increasingly stressed and strained during extreme weather associated with climate change, including prolonged heat waves, severe storms and devastating floods. Many people have purchased generators or home solar power systems and batteries, often at exorbitant cost.

For some people, electric cars are a better option because they can perform multiple functions. Another big plus: The battery in the F-150 Lightning or the Chevrolet Silverado electric pickup, which is expected to go on sale this year, can store far more energy than the household batteries that are sometimes installed with rooftop solar panels. The thought goes that pairing an electric van with a home solar system, a family can keep the lights on for days or even weeks.

The use of electric vehicles as an energy source has intrigued electric utility executives, including Pedro Pizarro, who chairs the board of directors of the Edison Electric Institute, the industry’s premier trade organization, and is CEO of Edison International, which provides power to millions. of homes and businesses in southern california.

Mr. Pizarro’s company and other utilities are testing whether it is practical and safe to send power from electric cars to the grid.

By absorbing energy when it’s plentiful and releasing it when it’s scarce, EVs can, he said, act as “an even bigger rubber band to absorb and manage the shock of day-to-day and week-to-week.”

Greater use of electric vehicles in this way should also allow utilities and homeowners to reduce greenhouse emissions by relying more on renewable energy sources such as solar and wind power that provide power intermittently.

Currently, few electric vehicles can provide backup power. But executives in TeslaThe dominant electric car company and other automakers have said they are working on updates that will enable many more cars to do just that.

When the power goes out in the Reigards neighborhood of Mount Juliet, Tenn. Their truck provides enough electricity to keep the lights on, run four refrigerators and run a fan in a natural gas heating system. Not only does the truck keep the air conditioning running, but other necessities are running just minutes after the outage begins.

When the family lost power at Christmas, Mrs. Regard’s parents, who were visiting, panicked because it was freezing outside. “They start to think, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on?'” said Rigard. His response: “Nothing happens. We’ll be fine.”

The couple was so pleased with their truck that they bought 10 more for their business, Grade A Construction. They estimate that the investment saves them $300 a month per car because driving on electricity costs less per mile than burning gasoline.

While the trucks reduce operating costs, outfitting the Reigards’ home with the electrical equipment that would allow them to take power from the F-150 required hiring experts and spending thousands of dollars. The couple used Qmerit, a company that manages the development, installation, and maintenance of electric vehicles, storage, and vehicle-to-home power systems.

A group of components transmits information between the truck and the home’s electrical system, appliances, and lights. Once set up according to the homeowner’s preferences, the system decides when the truck charges its batteries and when to send electricity back to the home.

But such systems can be complex, and some early adopters have had problems.

Kevin Dyer, a software quality engineer who lives near Los Angeles, has been using electric cars since 2009 and bought the F-150 Lightning in September. He wanted the truck to help his family get through the blackouts that have become common in California in recent years.

“We’re done with the installation,” said Mr. Dyer. “The truck was powering my house. That was the big five moment. That’s when it kind of went awry. It basically works, then it just shuts off.”

Dyer, 59, said he hoped a software update or other modest fix would fix the problem.

Energy executives said the industry is improving and simplifying technology to connect electric vehicles to homes, something they said will happen within a few years.

Over time, more people will be able to easily combine solar panels, home batteries and electric vehicles, said Oliver Phillips, Qmerit’s chief operating officer. Combined, he said, these devices will “bulletproof” people against power outages.

Gus Puga, owner of Airstream Services, an electrical, heating, and cooling company that worked with Qmerit to install the system at the station, said Gus Puga, home of Rickards.

Some energy experts worry that the growth of electric vehicles could strain grids by dramatically increasing energy demand. Mr. Pooja disagrees: “I think we will add stability to the network.”

In the auto industry, some experts have warned that using cars more frequently to power homes or the grid can cause batteries to deteriorate faster, reducing range — the distance vehicles can travel on a full charge. But automakers have underestimated these risks.

Ford and General Motors are keen to market their variety of battery-powered models to people who have experienced power outages or fear a power outage.

“It’s truly a game-changer,” said Ryan O’Gorman, Ford’s director of energy services in business development. “The truck is a giant power source. EVs are big and can power a home for days.”

Mark Polley, GM’s president of Power Delivery and Battery Solutions, said the company plans to offer a package of devices and services so customers can get the most out of their electric vehicle. “What we see as absolutely key is making it simple and affordable for customers,” he said.

But Mr. Pizarro, the utility executive, cautioned that power and auto companies still need to improve the technology that allows cars to send power to homes and the grid. He expects more problems as more people start using electric cars for backup power.

“It’s early days,” said Mr. Pizarro. “There will be surprises.”