In early March, high winds toppled trees and power lines in the Nashville area, leaving thousands of homes without power. But about 20 miles outside the city an electric truck provided power to John and Rachelle Reigard’s home, keeping their lights on.
“You can look at all the houses around us, and they’re all gone,” said Mr. Reigard, who bought the pickup, a Ford F-150 Lightning, more than a year ago. “A lot of people ask the question, ‘How do you have power?'”
The Reigards are part of a small group of pioneers using the batteries in their electric vehicles as a source of backup power for their homes. Energy and automotive experts expect many more people to do the same in the coming years, as automotive and energy companies make it easier for people and businesses to use the energy in electric cars for more than just driving.
Power grids are increasingly stressed and faltering during extreme weather linked to climate change, including in long 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 choice because they can serve multiple functions. Another big advantage: The battery in an F-150 Lightning or the electric Chevrolet Silverado pickup, which is expected to go on sale this year, can store much more energy than home batteries that are sometimes installed with rooftop solar panels. Pair an electric truck with a home solar system, the thinking goes, and a family could keep the lights on for days or even weeks.
The use of electric cars as a source of power has intrigued electric utility executives, including Pedro Pizarro, who chairs the board of the Edison Electric Institute, the industry’s main trade organization, and is the chief executive of Edison International, which provides power to millions. of homes and businesses in Southern California.
Mr. Pizarro’s company and other utilities are testing whether it is practical and safe to send power from electric vehicles to the grid.
By soaking up power when it’s plentiful and releasing it when it’s scarce, electric vehicles, he said, could act as “a bigger rubber band to absorb the shocks and manage them day to day and week to week.”
Greater use of electric vehicles in this way should also allow utilities and homeowners to reduce global warming emissions by relying more on renewable sources of energy such as solar and wind that provide power intermittently.
Currently, few electric vehicles can provide backup power. But executives at Teslathe dominant electric car company, and other automakers have said they are working on upgrades that will enable many more cars to do so.
When the power goes out in the Reigards’ neighborhood in Mount Juliet, Tenn. , their truck supplies enough electricity to keep the lights on, run four refrigerators and run a fan in a natural gas-powered heating system. The truck doesn’t run its air conditioning, but other essentials turn on just minutes after starting.
When the family lost power around Christmas, Ms. Reigard’s parents, who were visiting, were alarmed because it was freezing outside. “They started thinking, ‘My God, what’s going on?’ Mr. Reigard said. His answer: “Nothing happens. We’ll be fine.”
The couple were so pleased with their truck that they bought 10 more for their business, Grade A Construction. They estimate that the investment saves them $300 a month per vehicle because driving on electricity costs less per mile than burning gasoline.
While the trucks reduce operating costs, equipping the Reigards’ home with the electrical equipment that lets it 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 transmit information between the truck and the home’s electrical system, appliances and lights. Once set up with a homeowner’s preferences, the system decides when the truck charges its batteries and when it sends electricity back to the house.
But such systems can be complicated, and some early adopters ran into problems.
Kevin Dyer, a software quality engineer who lives near Los Angeles, has driven electric cars since 2009 and bought an F-150 Lightning in September. He wanted the truck to help his family get out of the rolling blackouts that have become common in California in recent years.
“We’ve finished the installation,” Mr. Dyer said. “The truck actually powered up my house. That was the high five moment. That’s when things kind of went downhill. It just works, then shuts down.”
Mr Dyer, 59, said he hoped a software update or other modest fix would solve the problem.
Energy executives said the industry is working to improve and simplify the technology to connect electric cars to homes, something they said will happen in a few years.
Oliver Phillips, chief operating officer at Qmerit, said that over time more people will be able to easily combine solar panels, home batteries and electric vehicles. Combined, those devices will “bulletproof” people against power outages, he said.
Battery-electric vehicles could eventually play an even bigger role in providing power to the grid when demand for electricity exceeds supply, said Gus Puga, owner of Airstream Services, an electrical, heating and cooling company that worked with Qmerit to install the system at the. The home of Regards.
Some energy experts have worried that the growth of electric cars could strain grids by greatly increasing the demand for energy. Mr. Puga disagrees: “I believe we will add stability to the grid.”
In the auto industry, some experts have warned that frequently using cars to power homes or the grid could degrade batteries faster, reducing range – the distance vehicles can travel on a full charge. But automakers downplayed those risks.
Ford and General Motors are keen on marketing the versatility of their battery-powered models to people who have suffered power outages or fear blackouts.
“It’s really a game changer,” said Ryan O’Gorman, energy services business development manager at Ford. “The truck is a giant power source. EVs are large and can power the house for several days.”
Mark Bole, head of energy connectivity and battery solutions at GM, said the company planned to offer a package of devices and services so customers could get the most out of their electric vehicle. “What we see as absolutely key is to make it simple and affordable for the customer,” he said.
But Mr Pizarro, the utility manager, warned that energy and car companies still needed to refine the technology allowing cars to send power to homes and the grid. He expects more problems to be identified as more people start using electric cars for backup power.
“It’s early days,” said Mr. Pizarro. “There will be surprises.”