In February 2021, an extreme cold snap in Texas caused prolonged power outages for millions of people. These were reminiscent of other recent outages, also caused by extreme weather events. Texas faced a similar winter energy crisis in 2011, and Hurricane Harvey left hundreds of thousands of Texans without power. In other parts of the country, California cut power to tens of thousands during wildfires just last year. In 2020, hurricanes caused outages in the Southeastern U.S., and severe storms caused people to go without power in the Midwest and New England.
Extreme weather events are becoming more frequent and severe because of climate change. We can and should do everything we can to reduce global warming pollution and prevent the impacts from getting even worse. While they won’t solve the problem on their own, electric vehicles are an important part of the climate solution.
But they could also play another important role as mobile sources of energy during blackouts.
Electric vehicles are essentially batteries on wheels
A plug-in electric vehicle has an electric motor instead of an internal combustion engine, which is powered by a large battery pack. Those batteries, when not being used to power the electric motor, can store energy.
Electric cars, trucks and buses charge by pulling power from the grid, but it is possible for them to also reverse roles and act as a source of stored energy themselves, through the use of vehicle-to-grid, or vehicle-to-building technology. The energy stored in the electric vehicle batteries can be sent back to the grid or be used to power buildings during outages, weather emergencies, and other periods of low energy supply or high energy demand. Some utility companies are investing in EVs and exploring vehicle-to-grid programs precisely for this extra grid capacity. Some automakers and other companies are exploring ways making it easy for consumers to purchase home charging systems that allow the cars to send power back to the building as well.
In 2019, the average U.S. household electricity consumption was about 877 kWh per month, which is approximately 29.2 kWh per day (a kWh, or kilowatt hour, is just a unit of measurement for how much energy you use). A fully charged Nissan Leaf equipped with vehicle-to-building technology could power a home for more than two days. Vehicles with even bigger batteries, could provide even more power.
Examples of storage capacity of different types of electric vehicles
Electric buses and trucks as mobile community power sources
Larger vehicles present an even greater opportunity. Electric buses and trucks have larger batteries and more storage potential. Large electric fleets equipped with vehicle-to-grid or vehicle-to-building technology could be brought to areas where they are needed to supply power for larger amounts of people. These larger vehicles can help keep the lights on in communities, hospitals, shelters and emergency response centers.
There are over 480,000 school buses and 60,000 public transit buses in the U.S. If fully electrified, that could be more than half a million mobile power sources that could be deployed during emergencies. Add to that electric garbage trucks, construction vehicles and even big rigs, and the potential is significant.
How to make this a reality
In 2019, electric cars accounted for only about 2 percent of all light-duty vehicle sales in the U.S. Electric buses and trucks are becoming more common in the U.S., but still only represent a tiny fraction of the entire fleet. As it stands now, even if equipped with vehicle-to-grid technology, the EVs currently on the road would do little to help a broad swath of the population in need of power.
To support an accelerated transition to electric vehicles, policymakers should:
Expand access to electric vehicle charging by supporting and requiring the installation of more public stations and ensuring interoperability between stations so EV drivers can seamlessly use and pay at any station, regardless of which company owns or operates it.
Promote mobility options such as electric transit and fleets of shared electric vehicles so people can take advantage of the EV revolution without having to personally own a car.
Invest in the development of vehicle-to-grid and vehicle-to-home technology to ensure that the EVs being added to our fleets are equipped to add storage capacity and provide grid-benefits when needed.
Moving forward, to standardize the technology and make it accessible to everyone, utilities should seek regulatory approval to implement programs and invest in vehicle-to-grid capable infrastructure, and automakers should make it easy for consumers to install chargers that can send power both ways.
As all that happens, governments at all levels should work to incorporate electric vehicles into their emergency response plans. Shelters, hospitals, emergency response centers and other buildings critical to emergency management should be equipped with the infrastructure necessary to pull power from EVs. Heavy-duty fleets like buses and trucks present particularly promising opportunities to provide power to people in need, but all the electric buses in the world won’t do any good if we’re not prepared to have them charged and ready to deploy to the areas that need them the most.