· 6 min read
When millions faced power outages in Texas following winter storms in February, Ryan O’Gorman drove the icy, “apocalyptic” streets and thought about electric vehicles.
“You drive around and you see all these F-150s in the driveways, and all I could think was, Man, a year from now, the world could have been different for a lot of these people,” O’Gorman, Ford’s electric vehicle manager of strategic partnerships, told Emerging Tech Brew.
That’s because Ford’s new all-electric F-150 Lightning can also serve as a generator, using the truck’s battery to power your house for up to three days, the company says. When the F-150 Lightning rolls out to customers next year, it will be the first vehicle widely available in the US that can directly integrate with your home’s electrical system, according to the company. Ford is working with solar storage company Sunrun to install the necessary charging and inverter hardware for customers who want it.
At the broadest level, this capability is called bidirectional charging—a vehicle battery that can both charge, to receive energy, and discharge, to supply energy. This tech holds promise for extreme situations like what O’Gorman described in Texas, but also for expanding the supply of electricity available to the grid day-to-day. An increase in EV ownership will mean more demand for electricity, but it also presents an opportunity for flexible storage of renewable energies like wind and solar.
The Nissan Leaf has been equipped with tech for charging the home or appliances for nearly a decade, but it’s been essentially impossible to use in the US due partly to a lack of hardware.
And as consumer demand for EVs ramps up, other automakers are also eyeing bidirectional tech. Volkswagen could produce as many as 300,000 vehicles with bidirectional charging in 2022. The new Hyundai Ioniq 5 is equipped with the technology, and Tesla has commented that all future vehicles will be equipped with bidirectional-charging capacity. Mitsubishi has also announced plans to include V2G in its Outlander, a plug-in hybrid EV.
Here’s a primer on what exactly this tech is, and why it matters.
“[Bidirectional charging is] passing electrons off the vehicle,” O’Gorman said. You can then use that electricity for many different applications, from powering a home or a building to putting energy back into the grid—often called V2G. But the rest of the terminology—such as vehicle-to-home (V2H)—describes what you do with that capability.
V2L, or vehicle-to-load, is one way to use bidirectional charging. This application involves plugging items directly into an EV battery to power them. You could use the F-150 Lightning this way to easily charge your phone while camping, for instance.
“The idea there is you’re taking energy off the truck directly into a saw or a coffee maker or a grill or whatever,” O’Gorman said.
With its charging infrastructure, called Ford Charge Station Pro, the F-150 Lightning is also capable of V2H. The truck’s battery can kick in when the house loses power and is no longer connected to the grid. The electricity can then flow from the energy stored in the battery, through an inverter that changes it from DC to AC, and then into the appliances, lights, and electronics plugged into the outlets inside, O’Gorman explained. This may also be referred to as V2B (vehicle-to-building).
While V2H provides electricity to a home that’s off-grid or experiencing a power outage, V2G actually takes energy from the car’s battery and puts it back into the utility’s grid.
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“Solar and storage does that today,” O’Gorman said. “You generate power somehow and then you put that back into the grid. So the utility company buys your energy from you.”
This application of bidirectional charging is a bit more challenging and requires more coordination with utilities.
“We’re still in the early innings of vehicle-to-grid,” Micah Kotch, clean energy expert and managing director at startup accelerator URBAN-X, told Emerging Tech Brew. “Certainly the popularity of the F-150 Lightning speaks to real customer demand.”
The F-150 Lightning had more than 160,000 reservations as of November 2, according to Ford. The automaker doubled its production target for the truck in August due to the strong demand.
And while Ford is touting the F-150 Lightning as a backup generator for now, the company hopes to roll out more advanced capabilities in the future. For instance, if the truck and the inverter can be modified to synchronize with the grid, then the battery could be used as a supplement to the power from the utility without being disconnected from the grid, potentially driving down the owner’s electricity costs, O’Gorman explained.
As the number of EVs on the road increases, the energy grid could be strained. But the challenge isn’t necessarily about a shortage of electricity: It’s about management.
“Even with the significant growth that’s projected at this point, I don’t think many utilities are expecting for a supply issue to come into play,” Stacy Noblet, senior director of transportation electrification at ICF, told Emerging Tech Brew. “It’s more about taking that increased load and placing it on the system where it makes sense.”
EVs have the potential to be part of the solution, Noblet said, because “an electric vehicle is quite literally a mobile load and a flexible load.”
A 2019 analysis from the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) predicts that EV battery capacity could be much larger than stationary battery capacity in the future. By 2050, IRENA estimates that about 14 terawatt hours (TWh) of EV batteries would be available to provide grid services, compared to 9 TWh of stationary batteries.
“It’s very much about participating in demand response,” Kotch said. “How does that mobile storage unit—how does your car battery— become a demand-side resource?”
He imagines connected microgrids, where car-battery capacities can be aggregated and used as a responsive energy source.
“Not just responding to price signals as to when to charge, but actually back-flowing power into the system,” Kotch said. “You’re talking about the transformation of the power sector.”
To take advantage of that battery storage, utilities will have to adapt. Utilities will need to have better data on how many customers own EVs and be able to ensure they can shut off that power source if the voltage gets too high, said Haresh Kamath, program manager for energy storage at the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI).
Successfully and safely implementing V2G technology will require investments from utilities, but Kamath says the task is more of a planning issue than an insurmountable problem. As Kotch put it, “The biggest challenge there is making sure that the load is there when you really need it."