How Your Next Vehicle Could Keep the Freezer Running (Really!)

credit:Zoe Lipman
As one of the millions in the DC area who lost power in last weekend’s storm, I doubt I was alone in feeling a moment or two of profound thankfulness for the lithium ion battery in my smart phone.

That battery is the ancestor—or cousin—of the much larger batteries now powering electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. So it shouldn’t be too surprising that we’re not far from the day when homeowners will regularly heave an even bigger sigh of relief, and thank their car for keeping the freezer running when the power goes down.

Even better, putting new vehicle technology together with plug and play solar panels and “smart grid” energy management—almost all available today—could provide even greater benefits and security to homeowners and the grid.

Energy Infrastructure Vulnerable to More Extreme Weather

Climate change is bringing more weather and climate extremes, including the intense storms that create challenges for the power companies. Last year NWF published More Extreme Weather and the U.S. Energy Infrastructure a report on the vulnerability of the nation’s energy infrastructure to just these sorts of climate impacts. That report flags the need to take action to anticipate stronger storms, as well as more intense heat and drought, which present challenges for generating electricity in conventional thermoelectric power plants that require water for cooling.

Indeed, this week’s huge outage revived the debate locally over burying power lines underground, and underscored the need for a national discussion around how to make urgently needed large scale upgrades our infrastructure in light of climate change, to prevent individual and business losses, and to support a modern economy.

A frustrated Maryland state Senator was quoted in a recent article: “Every time this happens, they say they’re shocked—shocked that it rained or snowed or it was hot—which isn’t an acceptable excuse given that we all know about climate change.”

But today, we are also in the midst of a clean energy and transportation technology renaissance that means that a key part of enhancing climate resilience and the security of our energy system can come from actions we take in our own homes.

Sneak Peak at Power “Outages” of the Future

Today, if you generate power with solar panels on your roof, that power is rarely stored; it flows to immediate home use or back onto the grid. In the case of an outage, that homemade power must also be shut down to prevent electricity from flowing back into the grid and injuring repair workers.

But an electric vehicle (or even a second-hand electric vehicle battery, used just for that purpose) does store the power you generate from solar panels on your roof—and it can be enabled (especially on an occasional basis) to provide that power back to your home. Meanwhile, “smart grid” improvements in energy management systems can enable utilities to control the power on their systems in much more detail, and provide smart appliances and devices for individuals to use to connect and manage the energy and technology in their homes.

These technologies are mainly being used separately today. But in new combinations they can provide households and car owners with new benefits on a daily basis, as well as the ability to easily provide their own backup power in an emergency.

Increasing numbers of households or businesses making, storing and/or using their own power could make our energy systems more resilient at the neighborhood level and system wide, and help reduce costs and hardships as we face the likelihood of more extreme weather and power events. And as they make use of renewable power, electric fuel, and efficiency technology even easier and more widespread they also reduce the pollution that causes climate change and extreme weather to begin with.

Energy-resilient Households Closer Than You Might Think

credit: © Ford Motor Company
This is hardly science fiction. Spurred by last year’s tsunami, Nissan has developed and released a charging system to connect its all- electric Leaf EV back to home electrical systems, where it could run a home for up to two days (plug-in hybrids can also tap into both energy storage and traditional generator functionality). Electric (and plug-in hybrid) vehicles come today with smart phone apps (and the technology behind them) to set when and how the vehicle charges. New solar systems are becoming far more plug and play, and several automakers are offering opportunities to install solar panels with an EV purchase.

Making this all work does mean upgrading our infrastructure, but it also means big opportunities for households, businesses, and technology entrepreneurs, to start putting the pieces together.