Navigant Research Blog

Winter Cold Shows Value of Plug-in Vehicles

— December 27, 2013

Over half a million utility customers in the northeastern United States and Canada were without power Christmas Eve following major snowstorms and frigid temperatures earlier in the week.  By late Christmas day, utilities in Michigan, Maine, and Toronto had returned power to many affected by the outages, but as of December 26, thousands were still without power.   Twenty-seven deaths were attributed to the storms and resulting power outages.  Many of the deaths were caused by traffic accidents and by carbon monoxide (CO) poisoning stemming from diesel generator use.  Though cold weather can reduce the driving range of plug-in electric vehicles (PEVs), future PEVs with bidirectional power capabilities could have significant value in cold weather climates.

The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission reports that an estimated 200 people in the United States die from CO poisoning associated with fuel-burning heating equipment every year.  CO poisoning is more common in winter months than summer months and is especially dangerous during power outages when diesel generators kick on to supply power to homes.  CO detectors are the best way to prevent CO poisoning, but the adoption of PEVs with bidirectional power capabilities can add security.

Generators On Wheels

Japanese PEV automakers Nissan and Mitsubishi have spearheaded the development of bidirectional systems, alongside the companies’ respective PEV models, the LEAF and i-MiEV.  These systems attach to the vehicle’s DC charging port and convert the DC power from the battery to AC power, which is compatible with the common home electrical system.  The Nissan system provides up to 6 kW of power and the Mitsubishi system can provide 1.8 kW.  Old fashioned incandescent light bulbs are rated between .04 kW and .06 kW, so these systems can keep the lights on for quite some time in the event of an outage.  Unfortunately, these systems are currently only available in Japan.

In the United States, development of PEV bidirectional capabilities has been focused almost entirely on fleet vehicles.  Vehicles developed by VIA motors, Electric Vehicle International (EVI), Boulder Electric Vehicle, and Smith Electric Vehicle are being used by fleets for various applications – primarily using bidirectional systems to enable fleets of PEVs to participate in grid operator-managed frequency regulation markets.  However, utilities have grown increasingly interested in the technology for emergency response applications.

A Nissan LEAF may be able to provide power to one home, but a utility-owned commercial PEV could supply power to an entire neighborhood.  VIA motors and EVI have developed PEVs for this purpose with power output capacities from 15 kW to 100kW.  These vehicles can not only get technicians to downed lines and damaged equipment but can also provide power to cold, dark homes.  A bidirectional PEV, whether in a garage or at the distribution transformer, can reduce the need for CO-emitting diesel generators for backup power support.  PEV automakers pioneering bidirectional capability as an option on their vehicles will be wise to bring their products to markets in outage-prone regions.

 

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