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An Electric Car Can Be Your Best Friend When The Lights Go Out

When the lights go out, an electric car can help you make it though a weather emergency until power is restored.

I was at a big box store recently, where a pleasant enough fellow offered to help load my purchases into my Tesla Model Y. “I would never own an electric car,” he said. “I don’t want to get trapped on the highway if there’s a storm.” Here in Florida, storms are a pretty regular occurrence, so there are lots of people who have similar concerns.

Last year, after freakish weather shut down a portion of Interstate 95, stories appeared in the Washington Post describing the horror of freezing to death in an electric car after battery power was depleted. It was big news and it got plenty of pushback from people, especially here at CleanTechnica.

Let’s get a few things straight. If you drive a combustion engine vehicle that can go 600 miles on a tankful, it goes without saying that you can drive further than someone who has an electric car with half the range — assuming, of course, you begin your journey with a full tank. In fact, very few people do drive around like that on a regular basis. And if there really is an emergency, everyone else will be queued up at the gas station, so it’s not like you can just duck in to the nearest Gas ‘N’ Go and pop back out again 5 minutes later.

If you are on the highway and stuck in traffic, an electric car uses very little energy, while a gasmobile sucks gas every second. An EV can use seat heaters to take the chill off whereas a conventional car must run the engine to make heat. Demand for gas on the highway may cause rest areas to run out and if traffic is snarled, tanker trucks won’t be able to get to them to resupply them with gasoline. Plus, too, and also, when the electricity goes out, those gas pumps stop working — as do EV chargers, of course.

The upshot is, fleeing for safety in an emergency can be a traumatic experience whatever car or truck you drive. One advantage electric car owners have is they can plug in at home before a storm hits so they have as much battery power as possible when it’s needed. You can’t fill your tank in your garage, so there’s that.

When An Electric Car Is More Than Just A Car

electric car

“Home of the Future” — Solar Power + All-Electric Ford F-150. Image courtesy of PulteGroup.

Bloomberg this weekend is relating the story of Westley and Sarah Ferguson of Haines City in central Florida. After they lost power during Hurricane Ian, Westley says he ran two extension cords into their house from outlets built into his Ford F-150 Lightning. He plugged the refrigerator into one and a power strip into the second, which he used to run some lights, a fan, and a television.

The Fergusons have not set up their home to allow the truck to be a backup power supply, but the arrangement was enough for he and his wife to cook beef stew on an electric stovetop and host another neighborhood couple for an impromptu movie night. “There was nowhere we needed to go,” says Westley, a 33-year-old web designer. “So we just stayed home.”

The Fergusons weren’t thinking of hurricanes when they ordered a their Ford F -150 Lightning in May of 2021. “Nothing in our market research indicates emergency preparedness is a notable why-buy in the EV market,” Mark Schirmer of Cox Automotive told Bloomberg. “Consumers mostly prioritize price, monthly payment, range and styling.”

EVs’ backup power does, however, consistently come in handy. On the night before Ian made landfall, Christine Cannella plugged her Rivian R1T pickup into the charger at her gated community in Fort Myers, Florida, to top off its battery. When Ian arrived, it knocked out power at Cannella’s house for five days, so she used the R1T’s on board outlets to make coffee and to cook hot dogs on an electric grill for herself and her son.

When the house got too muggy, Cannella and her cockapoo puppy slept in the backseat with the air conditioner running on “pet comfort” mode. “I’m not a camper. I’m not an outdoors person,” she says. “But it became a tremendous utility for me and my family during those 48 hours.”

Last year, Florida’s Department of Environmental Protection awarded Blink a contract to install dozens of chargers in strategic spots along evacuation routes, which is wonderful news for electric car drivers so long as there is electricity available to power those chargers. As buses and other public vehicles also become electrified, two way charging could be used to power shelters and emergency services, or even to help support faltering grids.

The Takeaway

Nature doesn’t care what you drive. Roads can wash out. Wires can be down for days, even weeks. Traffic jams can snarl escape routes so that a trip that usually takes an hour can take a day or more. It’s really not helpful to be smug and dismiss one kind of vehicle or another. If you are driving a Nissan LEAF, you may have good reason to envy the guy next to you with the big pickup truck and saddle tanks that let him drive 1,000 miles at a clip without refueling.

About the most that can be said is that things are changing. More and more electric cars have plugs that allow some accessories to be powered by the battery. The idea of using the battery in an electric car to power an entire home like a backup generator is getting a lot of attention from people. Yes, it can be costly to get the inverters and transfer switches installed that allow a residence to island itself from the electrical grid, but not more so than for a gasoline- or diesel-powered backup generator.

The electric car, coupled with more rooftop solar systems, is shifting the paradigm from getting all one’s electricity from a utility company to making more of it ourselves and using it right there at home. It’s all part of the transition to the distributed renewables model that is likely to become the norm for many over the next 5 to 10 years. The question may soon become not why own an electric car during a weather emergency but rather why not?

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Written By

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. 3000 years ago, Socrates said, "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." Perhaps it's time we listened?


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