In early March, strong winds downed trees and power lines in the Nashville area, leaving thousands of homes without power. But about 20 miles out of town, an electric van was powering John and Rachelle Reigard’s home, keeping the lights on.
“You can look at all the houses around us and they’re all dark,” said Reigard, who bought the truck, a Ford F-150 Lightning, more than a year ago. “Many people ask the question: ‘How do you have power?’”
The Reigards are part of a small group of pioneers using their electric vehicle batteries as a backup power source for their homes. Auto and energy experts expect many more people to follow suit in the coming years, as auto and energy companies make it easy for people and businesses to harness the power of electric cars for more than just driving.
Power grids are increasingly stressed and bent during extreme weather conditions related to climate change, including prolonged heat waves, intense storms and devastating floods. Many people have purchased generators or home solar and battery systems, often at great expense.
For some people, electric vehicles are a better option because they can do multiple things. Another big plus: The battery in an F-150 Lightning or Chevrolet Silverado electric pickup truck, which is expected to go on sale this year, can store much more energy than home batteries that are sometimes installed with solar panels on the ceiling. Combine an electric truck with a home solar system, it is thought, and a family could keep the lights on for days or even weeks.
The use of electric vehicles as a power source has intrigued utility executives, including Pedro Pizarro, who heads the board of directors of the Edison Electric Institute, the industry’s leading trade organization, and is CEO of Edison International, that powers millions of homes and businesses in Southern California.
Mr. Pizarro’s company and other utility companies are testing whether it is practical and safe to send power from electric vehicles to the grid.
By absorbing energy when it’s plentiful and releasing it when it’s in short supply, electric vehicles, he said, could serve as “a bigger rubber band to absorb shocks and manage from day to day and week to week.”
Increased use of electric vehicles in this way should also allow utilities and homeowners to reduce global warming emissions by relying more on renewable energy sources, such as solar and wind, than They provide power intermittently.
For now, few electric vehicles can provide backup power. But the executives of teslathe dominant electric car company, and other automakers have said they are working on upgrades that will allow many more cars to do so.
When the power goes out in the Reigards’ Mount Juliet, Tenn., neighborhood, their truck provides enough electricity to keep the lights on, run four refrigerators and operate a fan on a natural gas-fired heating system. The truck doesn’t keep the air conditioning running, but other essentials come on just minutes after a blackout begins.
When the family lost power around Christmas, Mrs. Reigard’s parents, who were visiting, became alarmed that it was freezing outside. “They started thinking, ‘My God, what’s going on?’” Reigard said. Her response: “It’s okay. We’ll be fine.
The couple have been so pleased with their truck that they bought 10 more for their business, Grade A Construction. They estimate that the investment is saving them $300 per month per vehicle because driving on electricity costs less per mile than burning gasoline.
While the trucks reduce operating costs, outfitting the Reigard home with the electrical equipment that allows it to receive 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 energy systems.
A handful of components relay information between the truck and the electrical system, appliances and lights in the house. Once configured with the owner’s preferences, the system decides when the truck charges its batteries and when it sends electricity to the house.
But such systems can be complicated, and some early adopters have encountered problems.
Kevin Dyer, a software quality engineer who lives near Los Angeles, has been using electric vehicles since 2009 and bought an F-150 Lightning in September. He wanted the truck to help his family weather power outages that have become common in California in recent years.
“We finished the installation,” Dyer said. “The truck actually powered my house. That was the high five moment. That’s when things went downhill. It basically works, then shuts down.”
Dyer, 59, said he hoped a software update or other modest fix would resolve the issue.
Energy executives said the industry was working to improve and simplify the technology to connect electric cars to homes, something they said would happen within a few years.
Oliver Phillips, Qmerit’s chief operating officer, said that over time, more people will be able to easily combine solar panels, home batteries and electric vehicles. Taken together, these devices will protect people from power outages, he said.
Battery-powered vehicles could eventually play an even bigger role by providing power to the grid when electricity demand outstrips supply, said Gus Puga, owner of Airstream Services, an electric, heating and cooling company that worked with Qmerit. to install the system at the Reigards’ house.
Some energy experts worry that the growth of electric cars could overload grids by greatly increasing demand for power. Mr. Puga disagrees: “I think we are going to add stability to the network.”
In the auto industry, some experts have warned that frequent use of cars to power homes or the grid could degrade batteries faster, reducing range, the distance vehicles can travel on a full charge. But automakers have downplayed those risks.
Ford and General Motors are interested in marketing the versatility of their battery-powered models to people who have experienced blackouts or fear blackouts.
“It’s really a game changer,” said Ryan O’Gorman, manager of business development energy services at Ford. “The truck is a giant power source. Electric vehicles are big and can power the house for several days.”
Mark Bole, GM’s head of energy connectivity and battery solutions, said the company planned to offer a bundle of devices and services so customers could get the most out of their electric vehicle. “What we consider absolutely key is to make it simple and affordable for the customer,” he said.
But Mr. Pizarro, the utility executive, warned that auto and power companies still need to refine the technology that allows cars to send power to homes and the grid. He expects more problems to be identified as more people start using electric vehicles for backup power.
“These are the early days,” Pizarro said. “There will be surprises”.