Plug-n-play solutions for home electrification, and options for power outages (Part 2)
Welcome to Home Electrification Part 2! This video continues on from where we left off in part 1. Funny how that works. There’s a clicky thing, link below, all that. In the previous video we talked about the capacity problem that many homes which rely on fuels will run into as they make the switch from burning stuff to harnessing the power of the grid, and how load management solutions can sidestep that issue. Here, we’ll talk a little bit more about that, then discuss some truly plug-and-play options that are on the horizon (and in some cases available now), before finally discussing some strategies to deal with this happening.
It does happen sometimes, but that doesn’t mean we can’t be prepared for it. Last time, we talked a lot about smart breaker panels. Those can absolutely do a whole heckuva lot to make home electrification attainable for more people, but they’re not the only way to meet the goal of spreading electric demand around. It may be worth having those smarts depending on your priorities and preferences, but here’s a simpler idea: sharing. Right now, general practice is to give every high-draw electrical appliance its own dedicated circuit in your breaker box and its own dedicated run of wiring.
But maybe that’s overkill. Consider this shot I keep reusing. The water heater and dryer are right next to each other. Both of them have their own run of 10 gauge wiring going back to the panel and their own 30A breaker.
As designed, the electrical system here accounts for a potential 40 to 50 amp draw when both of these appliances are running, and together they require 4 slots in the panel. But is that truly necessary? What if instead we ran a single circuit to a very-slightly smart junction box that ping-ponged power between either the water heater or the dryer? If it detects current draw from the dryer it could simply shut off the water heater for the duration of the dryer’s cycle, using the same circuit for two tasks. There are tons of different ways this could be done.
It doesn’t even need to be smart at all if you don’t want it to be. A simple switch that lets you toggle between one or the other would suffice. So long as you can prevent both items from running together, then the electrical system only has to account for a single 18 to 24 amp load which not only frees up more capacity to do other things, but also lets you save a couple spots in your breaker panel. And as we discussed, a conventional storage water heater is a battery! You can delay recharging it and use that circuit for other purposes and you probably won’t even notice.
If you saw my electric vehicle charging guide, you may remember the idea of using a dryer outlet to charge a car - that’s another great way to use one circuit to do two things, and there are commercially available products which make switching between the two tasks happen automatically. Oh, and the energy-diverting device can live anywhere! You don’t necessarily need to be lucky and have your dryer close to your water heater. It could simply be an add-on that lives next to your breaker panel, with one wire going in and two wires going out. As a matter of fact, this would be helpful to me! I’m officially out of slots for breakers in this panel after adding an electric stove, so once the time comes for me to get a cold-climate heat pump, I’ll need another two slots if I decide to add heat strips in the air handler. If I can combine the water heater and dryer into the same circuit, well there we go! Done! Electricity is an incredibly flexible thing we have access to, and the possibilities are virtually endless.
But, no matter if our load management solution is a smart panel or smart junction box or something else, it still won't solve the “running new circuits” problem. If there isn't a high capacity circuit going to where your stove, water heater, and dryer live, well that’s still work you have to do. It’s not exactly rocket surgery to run some new wires, but it can still be expensive and difficult.
But I have good news: thanks to the miracles of batteries and heat pumps, you can actually electrify all those things without doing any work at all. OK, well maybe a little bit. And the stove isn’t a real purchasable product quite yet.
But 120V heat pump water heaters and clothes dryers that just plug into a standard household outlet are on the market today. Before we continue, though, these are not magic bullets and rest assured I know that. Please don’t think I’m suggesting these options will work for anybody - all of them have downsides, so there are reasons you may still prefer to run new circuits for conventional electric appliances. However, the ability to cut gas out of your clothes drying, water heating, and diet diet without doing any electrical work is pretty powerful if it can work for you. I’ll start with heat pump water heaters because those things are cool. Literally! Now, uh, while they are cool, this section is pretty long because of the 120V solutions out there, this is definitely the most nuanced and every application is different.
But I ain’t afraid of no nuance, so let’s dive in. Most electric water heaters simply run electric current through heating elements that stick into the water. Simple and effective! But you need a lot of power to do that.
Heating water is, frankly, hard. A heat pump water heater can dramatically reduce the power you need because instead of using electrical energy to make new heat, it gobbles up heat energy from the air surrounding the tank and moves it inside. A heat pump water heater looks just like any other except it’s a fair bit taller to accommodate what essentially amounts to the guts of a small air conditioner sitting on top of the tank. When it needs to heat the water inside, it switches that quasi-air conditioner on. Now, don’t worry, they aren’t as loud as a typical air conditioner.
Reportedly newer models are a bit louder than your average refrigerator. But they do behave like air conditioners in that they will make the space you put them in colder. This might seem weird, but that’s where it’s getting its heat energy from.
It’s a lot like a backwards refrigerator. Instead of keeping its insides cold by pushing heat out, it keeps its insides hot by pulling heat in. That side-effect might be the best thing ever or a bit of a bummer depending on where you live.
Or perhaps, as would be the case for me, both! A heat pump water heater effectively provides a bit of free cooling as it squirrels away heat energy in the tank. And, just like an air conditioner, it also removes moisture from the air. In my Midwestern basement, this would be super duper welcome late spring through early fall.
Usually I spend a not-small amount of energy running a dehumidifier down there (which incidentally also generates a good deal of heat). But if my water heater did some dehumidifying while also giving me a bit of cooling and ALSO drastically reducing the energy cost to heat water, a task I’m going to be doing anyway, sign me up right now! In the winter months, though, it would turn into a bummer. Now the thing is stealing some of the heat my heating system just spent a bunch of work creating. But that’s not necessarily terrible. Lots of folks consider this to be a dealbreaker for heat pump water heaters, however I would submit that so long as the building's primary heat source is more efficient than resistive electric heat, which I sure hope it is, a heat pump water heater will still save energy even if you need to run your heat a little more often.
Still, there are significant drawbacks to consider. First, we should address the cylindrical elephant in the room. A storage water heater, no matter what heats it, is a pretty large object that you need space for somewhere. To be clear, lots and lots of homes already have space for it because they’ve got a very similar cylindrical elephant in the room right now. But, a fair bit of newer housing developments have embraced the tankless lifestyle, and some older homes have moved in that direction for the space-saving advantage tankless water heaters provide. I don’t blame you for wanting that, but there’s just one big problem with its small size.
Almost all tankless water heaters are powered by gas or propane. And regrettably, if you only have the space for a tankless water heater, you might very well be stuck with gas for the foreseeable future. Electric tankless water heaters do exist but they need astounding amounts of electrical power, especially if you live in a cold climate.
Again, heating water is hard and if you want to get water from near-freezing to hot-shower temperatures at a flow rate of 2 gallons per minute (which is about seven and a half liters) you’re gonna need roughly 1.4 million joules per minute, or 23,535 joules per second. And a joule per second is what a watt is. So to do this with electricity, you need 23 and a half thousand watts, or essentially all of the power available to you with 100 amp service.
That’s just not realistic, and that’s the entire reason storage water heaters are so common in the first place. The water in the tank plus its thick blanket of insulation buys you time so you only need to add moderate amounts of power to make it and keep it hot. Soap box alert! Honestly, having a highly-insulated tank is such a useful feature for several reasons.
Not only does it allow us to shift energy demand around, but it also provides an emergency reserve of potable water, and personally I feel like the movement away from storage water heaters is not super good now that heat pump water heaters exist which rely on that storage to work. By the way, allow me to address a common misconception: tankless water heaters absolutely do not provide you with “instant hot water.” a matter of fact they’re slower at producing hot water because it’s not already hot! They have to detect flow when you open a hot water tap and perform a startup sequence which takes time. If instant hot water is what you’re after, a hot-water recirculation system which pumps a loop of hot water around the pipes in your home is what you actually need— and that can be installed with a conventional storage water heater. Really, the only other advantage of tankless units aside from their space savings (and frankly kinda dubious claims of reduced leaking risk) is that you can’t run out of hot water, but to make that possible you either need a bonkers amount of electricity available at a moment’s notice or something flammable which you can burn at a rapid clip.
Given the tremendous energy savings a heat pump water heater can provide, I would highly suggest against taking a hot water storage tank out of your home design, and if you live where that has already been done, you might want to plan on adding it back in some day. You are absolutely welcome to disagree with me, but I find that the ability to collect the energy around the tank (which is, to be clear, entirely free in the warmer months and year-round in some climates) is much more interesting than having a limitless supply of hot water. But, now that I’m off that soapbox, assuming you like this idea and have the space for a heat pump water heater, well not everybody has a basement and depending on where you water heater lives you might still run into some issues.
You can generally run a duct from the water heater’s cold-air return and push that air somewhere else so it can live in a tight space like a utility closet, but regardless you will have to live with it producing cold air somewhere. And if your water heater currently resides in an unconditioned space like a garage, if ambient temperatures regularly get near freezing out there, it may not work. You also have to deal with it producing an entirely new kind of water: Surprise water! I mentioned earlier that it provides free dehumidification - that happens because as it collects energy from the evaporator, its surface becomes very cold which causes moisture in the air to condense on it. That condensing moisture eventually piles up into droplets of water that fall off the evaporator and then need to be dealt with. If you have a drain where your water heater is, obviously this is no sweat.
But if you don’t have a drain nearby you may need a condensate pump or similar to push that water away. The next big downside is the recharge time. Heat pump water heaters are slower than hot-sticks-in-water water heaters, and in fact most heat pump water heaters for sale today are 240V “hybrid” models which still have traditional heating elements as an option. You can choose to use them in the winter months or if hot water demand is high. But if we’re talking 120V models that only have the heat pump, you won’t have that option. Some work around this by keeping the water extremely hot and using a thermostatic mixing valve to temper it with cold water on its way out of the tank.
In effect, this artificially increases the size of the tank without letting dangerously hot water get to your taps. But if you do end up using all the hot water in a 120V heat pump water heater, it will be a few hours before the tank is back up to temperature. Luckily, an easy solution is making the tank bigger, and they make big ol’ 80 gallon versions if you need a lot of hot water - though obviously space might be an issue there and the bigger the tank, the longer the recharge time. Energy is energy, and water is water. Finally, there’s cost and availability.
A basic electric water heater costs between five and six hundred bucks, meanwhile a heat pump water heater costs three to four times as much. For those of us who have electric water heaters right now, that cost delta is paid for pretty quickly because of how energy-intensive heating water is, but if you’re coming from gas the savings probably won’t be quite as dramatic - and if your electricity is expensive and your gas is cheap, they might not materialize. Don’t discount the free cooling and dehumidifying, though, especially if you live where it’s warm year-round. Then there’s the issue that 120V heat pump water heaters are brand spanking new, hard to find, and in some cases not available for sale in all markets. Rheem, for instance, reportedly will not sell theirs outside of warm climates. Which... I mean I guess that makes sense, but it’s not like they wouldn’t work in the majority of basements around here.
On that note, because heat pump water heaters are a fairly new thing, we’re still learning how best to use them. For example, research has recently shown that we don’t need the air volume available to them to be as big as we thought, meaning they can go in smaller rooms and still work effectively and efficiently. There are also split systems which get their heat energy from outside air, though frankly this would only be advantageous in winter months (and a waste of free cooling in warm climates) so I don’t expect to see that become widespread unless you live where home heating systems that also produce hot water are common. If you already have a separate water heater, it’s much easier to just yank out one thing and replace it with a similar one. On that note, dryers! Heat pump clothes dryers are available right now and these bad boys plug into a standard outlet, use far less energy than a conventional dryer, and don’t need any venting so they can be placed anywhere. This makes them much easier to recommend.
In fact for many people they’re unlocking the ability to have a dryer in the first place. I must confess that I’m not the biggest fan of the name heat pump dryer, though, because the pumping of heat is mostly incidental to how they work. I got tripped up by this myself; their actual task is to dry things more than it is to produce heat. Heat pumps just happen to be a common way that we do that. A heat pump dryer is the same tumbly cylinder you’re used to but with the components of a common dehumidifier cleverly snuck into a recirculating air path.
Air is continuously blown into the drum, picking up moisture from wet clothes tumbling by, and then it’s drawn over a cold, energy-absorbing evaporator once it exits the drum. The cold surface of the evaporator causes moisture in the air to condense on it and fall out, and then that same air immediately goes across the hot, energy-releasing condenser which increases its temperature and thus decreases its relative humidity. That now dry air will go back into the drum to absorb more moisture from the clothes, then it leaves, goes across the evaporator and dumps that moisture again, goes across the condenser and gets hot and dry again, goes back into the drum to absorb moisture from the clothes again, and this repeats ad nauseum ‘til the clothes are dry. The thermal feedback loop created here does gradually increase the temperature of the air circulating throughout, but the drying action mainly comes from the fact that it’s constantly drying the air which naturally allows it to absorb more moisture from your clothes. Really, this is more like forcibly line-drying your clothes in a compact space with a constant breeze of warm, dry air. Heat pump dryers don’t really have any installation concerns at all but they do have some drawbacks.
First is, again, purchase cost and availability. They’re more expensive than a conventional dryer right now, and pretty rare all-things considered. But since they’re really just dehumididryers I am all but certain they’ll get cheaper and easier to buy with time. The second is that they’re a wee bit more fiddly to use. The water that gets extracted from your clothes becomes deposited in a tank which you need to empty every cycle or two. In addition to that added task, these dryers usually have multiple lint traps.
You don’t want lint getting onto the evaporator and clogging its fins, so extra filtration is designed into the machine and that needs some extra attention. The last and biggest drawback is that they’re significantly slower at drying clothes than a conventional dryer. It might take two or even three times as long as what you’re used to, so if you have a big family and are constantly doing laundry, it might get in your way somewhat. Really that’s kinda it, though. If you can deal with a bit of fiddliness and aren’t in a hurry, you’ll enjoy a dryer that plugs into a standard outlet, can be put anywhere, uses a fraction of the energy needed by a conventional dryer, doesn’t blow huge quantities of conditioned air out of your home through a vent which also saves energy, is probably less likely to start a house fire since it doesn’t get all that hot and there isn’t a vent pipe to trap flammable lint, and which many report is gentler on clothes because, again, it doesn’t get all that hot.
There’s a lot to like about them so long as speed isn’t your number one priority. And lastly, let’s talk about the drop-in replacement for a stove that doesn’t really exist yet but is on the way. Quick note, though: if you’re gonna be all grumbly about the idea of using an electric stove, you need to try an induction stove first.
They’re not yet very common at all in the US for some unknown reason, so many of you may be imagining old-fashioned resistive stoves which, although I personally don’t have a problem with, are definitely much less controllable than gas. But induction technology flips this on its head because the cooktop heats your cookware directly with the power of magnets (essentially), offering the same instant change in heat intensity that gas does, and with much higher power levels, too. While full-on stoves and cooktops remain weirdly expensive and rare here, you can get cheap portable burners like this if you’re interested in giving it a try. The biggest downside of induction is that it doesn’t work with all cookware, but if a magnet sticks to the bottom of a pot, it should work just fine with any induction cooktop. But let’s move on. Cooking (at home, anyway) is an exercise in using a lot of power...
but only for brief periods of time. Today, we supply electric stoves with high-amperage 240V circuits so that they can pump out 10 kilowatts on a whim. But they very rarely do that, and never for long. Having that much power available is only necessary because a stove doesn’t have a way to store energy. But what if it did? If your stove had a battery to serve as an energy buffer, it wouldn't need access to a huge power supply. It could slowly charge that battery from an ordinary outlet and then pump out big bursts of power when you need it to cook a meal.
And when you no longer do, it’ll go back to charging the battery from wall-power to prepare for the next round. This might sound far-fetched and somewhat silly, but you don’t need a very large battery to make a very powerful stove. Yes, a stove needs to pump out a lot of power, but it doesn't actually use a lot of energy because the power comes in bursts. About the longest high-power burst you’re gonna need is for boiling large quantities of water - and that still doesn’t amount to all that much energy in the grand scheme.
In a real-world test I did with a conventional electric stove, a burner outputting about 2 kW took 18 minutes to boil a gallon of water. And 2 kW for 18 minutes is only 600 watt-hours. Portable battery banks of that size are easily attainable and under $400 these days.
Obviously a cheap battery bank from Amazon ain’t gonna cut it, but the point is you don’t need a huge battery. 2 kilowatt-hours of battery storage would be pretty generous, and because it’s 2023 and progress has indeed been happening despite what you might have heard, we have relatively inexpensive and stable battery chemistries like lithium iron phosphate that are well-suited to this task right now. And that’s why startups like Impulse and Channing Street Copper are developing cooktops and ranges using this very idea. Now I know.
The word “startup” carries a lot of baggage. And sometimes they don’t always operate in the most, uh, let’s call it sensible fashion. For instance, Impulse is working on a perfectly nice-looking induction cooktop which I’m sure will be a lovely product that people will be happy with.
Its battery will even keep it working through a power outage, which is very neat. But, and I hate to be the bearer of bad news, it cannot have a huge impact here in the US because most of us have, y’know, ranges. We don’t have separate cooktops and ovens, that’s fancy pants stuff for those Europeans. That’s a joke, but according to the Energy Information Administration, 89% of US households have ranges.
It is a slim minority who don’t. So if anyone at Impulse is watching, ya gotta make a range. I would suggest adding it to your development path before a giant like Whirlpool steals this idea. Or, indeed, a different startup, like Channing Street Copper. Their range has a name - Charlie! And it’s sold out. And it was also quite pricey.
And apparently only sold in the Bay area. That’s kinda weird. But, they are incorporating a very generous 4 kilowatt-hour battery into its design, and also are putting some neat tricks up its sleeve. For instance, like Impulse it will also work as a stove through a power outage, but Charlie can also offload its stored power to other appliances like your fridge. That’s really cool! And yeah, if you’re gonna put a big battery in there, why not offer a way to use its energy for other things? Hold onto that idea, folks, it’s coming up again soon! Now, by all means I hope these startups succeed. More players are always welcome. But this idea, unless it’s patent-protectable which, I suppose it might be but I’m no patent lawyer, is frightfully copyable.
In fact, since most electric ranges have a big ol’ storage drawer below the oven, it’s almost too easy! If someone just makes a sufficiently-large LiFePo battery pack that will fit in the drawer with a 120V charge-controller on one end and a 240V inverter on the other, you could just slap that thing into an off-the-shelf range and be done. I’m sure there are more cost-effective and power-efficient ways to do this, and I’m also pretty sure that industry incumbents are gonna find them (if they’re not already working on it). But this is by no means a huge technical challenge. But now for the frozen pecans.
I mean - pros and cons. Obviously adding a battery to a stove makes it a more expensive stove, however if it saves you from the hassle of installing a range circuit, it could easily be worth that expense. And as batteries get cheaper, well you can bet the cost delta will shrink. But, of course, we have the fact that there’s a battery in there which will one day need replacement. Lithium iron phosphate batteries have a promising lifespan, and Channing Street Copper is claiming 80% capacity after 20 years of use so this isn’t necessarily a huge deal, but I certainly hope manufacturers don’t get too proprietary with their battery designs so they can be replaced down the road with minimal hassle. The ability to use the stove through a power outage is a pretty big pro, though, and in that way makes it better than any conventional electric option and essentially equivalent to gas.
And if it can offload its stored power for other tasks, well that makes it even more useful. Still, I must admit that I have some hesitancies when it comes to putting more batteries into more things and don’t think we should do it all willy-nilly. But, this particular application does seem like a pretty dang good use of batteries. If a gas-to-electric stove swap is literally just a swap, that makes a whole lotta things easier. Including, by the way, energy-management on the grid. If a stove only needs a little bit of power, that’s easier to manage than millions of stoves all switching on at dinner time.
Plus it could shift its power demand away from dinner-time entirely. Batteries - they’re pretty neat! I hope you can see that, so long as the devices we’ve discussed here can work for you, getting to an all-electric home can actually be pretty easy - so long as the costs are reasonable. If a like-for-like swap can be done with your stove, water heater, and dryer, the only real challenge is retrofitting your heating system. And if you’ve got central air conditioning, that’s not even that big of a challenge.
Even if you don’t, mini-split heat pumps, air-to-water heat pumps, and even packaged heat pumps can make the transition at least relatively painless. Just gotta work on pricing, availability, and HVAC companies resistant to change. Which is a bigger barrier than you might expect. But now, let’s talk about what happens if the power goes out for an extended period of time. That’s a concern I know lots of people have with an all-electric home, especially if you live where losing your heat source can mean freezing your pipes. However, I think it’s important to acknowledge that a gas-fired forced-air furnace doesn’t work without electricity.
Same goes for any boiler that needs power for its control boards, exhaust fans, and circulation pumps. Yes, there are people jury-rigging plugs onto their furnace so they can run it from a portable power source, but for the most part those of us with gas heat still lose our ability to use it when the lights go out unless we have some kind of whole-home backup generator. And, spoiler alert, those don’t all run on natural gas. This problem is also, of course, very dependent on where you live and how reliable your electric power is. If you’re close to a population center powered by a competent utility, you may lose power so infrequently that this discussion is pretty much pointless.
But if you’re very rural and lose it a lot, then yeah - you probably want some other energy source available and I don’t blame you. Although, if you’re rural there's a good chance you might well be using the thing I’m about to talk about. Regardless, please understand as we go into this section that none of these solutions are one-size-fits-all and I know that. I’m just trying to throw some ideas out there. If you do desire an all-electric home yet still need a back-up energy source for emergencies, there are many many ways to have one besides keeping your account with the gas company open. For instance, did you know that for many decades now we have had standardized, very flexible and cheap batteries which hold about 120 kWh of energy in a portable, rechargeable package? You see these things everywhere and can get them at many big-box stores! We just tend to use them for grilling and camping.
That’s right, I’m talking about propane and propane accessories. Now, to be clear, I’m not keen on us using propane all the time - I would actually like us to stop using fossil fuels, and propane is still made from fossil fuels. However, it has several huge advantages as an emergency stand-by energy source. It’s very shelf-stable, meaning you can keep a tank around for years and not worry about the fuel going bad, and it has a low global warming potential so leaks to the atmosphere are nowhere near as problematic as methane leaks. Stored propane can do pretty much everything natural gas does in a pinch, and many more things with the right equipment. To keep you warm, inexpensive portable heaters are available, some of which are approved for indoor use - though air quality will quickly go to crap so you better crack some windows if you’re forced to use one of those There are plenty of camping stoves which use propane, so you can keep cooking.
And, it can even provide you with a combination light and heat source with one of these things. [click click, fwoomp fwoomp] Now, obviously, storing grill bottles and using them indoors, regardless of what they’re hooked up to, is not without some element of risk… but on the other hand, neither is having a functionally limitless supply of methane coming from pipes in your walls so on balance... well I’ll leave that risk assessment up to you. Just be careful and follow all instructions and warnings. There are also fairly inexpensive portable generators that can turn propane into electricity.
Like any portable generator they’re loud and annoying, not particularly efficient, and are still plenty dangerous especially if you don’t use them correctly but they exist if you insist. Now again, I’m definitely not trying to sell you on propane. That’s the job of those influencer-types. Somehow. It’s not a cheap fuel, in fact around here it’s not that much cheaper as a heat source than resistive electric heat. Where I live, even a mediocre heat pump is almost always cheaper to run than a furnace running on propane.
I just think it’s a pretty versatile temporary energy solution sitting right under our noses and if you’re keen on having some sort of backup heat source, it might be worth looking into. An investment of a few hundred bucks can get you a couple of tanks, hoses, a heater, and a stove, and with frugal use of the heater that should last you at least a few days. Definitely be careful, though.
In the long-run, keeping a few propane bottles on hand for emergency use feels like a more sensible strategy to me than deciding to keep your gas hookup active “just in case.” Especially because there’s generally an ongoing fee just to have that gas connection which then incentivizes you to keep using it. Also, consider that while the natural gas grid tends to stay available during power outages, that’s not always the case. You are still relying on an outside entity to provide you with energy, and there have been gas grid failures. Also, it’s likely that the gas grid will become increasingly fragile with time as people use it less and the costs to maintain that infrastructure balloon on a per-active-customer basis. Food for thought.
Now, while there are plenty o’ propane-powered products for everything I just talked about on the market right now they’re all, at least to my sensibilities, some level of sketchy and dangerous. In the context of emergency use I suppose that's par for the course, but I would welcome the development of safer emergency heat options - like, maybe, a portable furnace with a real heat exchanger that pushes combustion byproducts outside. And I should note that portable tanks are not the only option (as anyone who lives in a rural area probably already knows) so if you are prone to frequent and long power outages, you could even get a large, hundred-plus gallon tank and sign up for propane delivery. Although, you may very likely already have that setup - and with the cost of propane I imagine you’re looking at electrifying your stuff anyway! Speaking of electrifying stuff, cars! An electric car might actually provide an important role in a power emergency. Of course, not everyone needs or wants a car, and not everyone who has one can keep it close to their home But if you have an electric car, what you really have is a giant battery which happens to be mobile. And car manufacturers are increasingly offering ways to offload the car’s stored energy for use around the house when you need it.
My car offers a feature called Vehicle-to-Load. An onboard inverter will supply 15A of 120V AC power through the charge connector and a simple adapter. I recently ran a test to determine how long the car could power basic necessities including a refrigerator, freezer, internet modem, and laptop.
Doing that for 24 hours, plus using the car to cook all meals during that time, used a mere 12% of its battery pack capacity. By planning ahead and ensuring the car is fully-charged prior to forecasted inclement weather, I can expect the car to provide at least 5 full days of backup power for those basics and still have the driving range to travel roughly 100 miles. And all the while it provides emergency power, it does so silently and without the risk of carbon monoxide poisoning portable generators present. As DC fast charging stations proliferate, I will also have the option to take the car there and get another five days of backup power with 15 or 20 minutes of charging - assuming a close-enough station is online, of course, but I expect commercial areas with DC fast charging stations will get priority repairs when power grid problems occur.
Obviously, this strategy is full of caveats. I didn’t account for heating or cooling needs, and my car’s V2L function is limited to what a standard household outlet can provide. But Hyundai’s implementation is by no means the only one out there - we can look to Ford to see the other extreme.
Ford offers what they call Intelligent Backup Power with the F-150 Lightning. That system integrates into your home's electrical system kinda like a generator would via a transfer switch, and can provide nearly 10 kW of power. With that much on-tap, you can do pretty much anything - including run a heat pump or air conditioning. And with the truck’s humongous battery pack, you can exceed a week of backup power so long as you cut out unnecessary consumption.
Even with my car’s rather limited system, though, I’m personally quite confident in it to get me through at least the worst parts of a power outage. A lot of my confidence comes from circumstance, though - winter power outages are rare where I live and generally quickly repaired, and although summers can get pretty brutal, a lack of air conditioning is generally more annoying than it is life-threatening. Ah but even then, I can always turn the car on and stay warm or cool inside of it for a while if I need to. I also don’t have the need to provide power to a sump pump or well pump, which helps a lot. But my point here is that while this approach absolutely won’t work for everyone (and not all electric cars offer this feature yet - including some very popular models) it’s definitely something to keep in mind. I’ve run into a lot of people who worry about what happens with an electric car and a power outage, but consider that they may actually provide a *solution* to power outages, at least for some people.
But of course there are nearly endless possibilities when it comes to providing backup power. Even a conventional car can provide power with an inverter in a pinch, and some hybrids out there feature powerful inverter systems that run off the traction battery, allowing you to turn the car into a competent portable generator if need be. Don’t have a car? Big luggable battery packs are available with several kilowatt-hours of storage and onboard inverters. Many of those can also be charged from solar panels, and if all you need is to keep a fridge and a few other necessities alive, a temporary setup of a few panels on the lawn could take care of you.
There’s also the resource we all have already: our communities. We can choose to spend many thousands of dollars building up our castles with triple-redundant whole-home backup systems to survive the purge. But in a real widespread power emergency, we can also lend a hand to our neighbors. This happens all the time, in fact. And so long as we put our efforts towards the right places, we can build-up the grid to make it more resilient and decrease the frequency of power outages in the first place. That might include microgrid technologies where local energy storage and production can keep an area functional even without a connection to the broader grid.
Or it could include like, y’know, efforts to bury distribution infrastructure so it’s less prone to trees falling on it. That might be worth it. An all-electric future shouldn’t be scary.
Your life is already, like, 95% electric. Yes, those four appliances gas can power are important - especially your heat. But I’ll bet you’ve woken up to your heat not working at least once in your life.
A furnace is still a single-point-of-failure, after all. And there’s so much progress we can make and are making with electricity! Batteries get cheaper, smaller, and lighter, heat pumps get more efficient, generation gets cleaner and cheaper, and countless new innovations arrive every year which harness the power of electricity. Meanwhile, gas is just gas.
We’ve already done about all we can with it, and there’s no more room to innovate. The writing’s on the wall. If you’ve made it this far, thanks very much for watching.
I hope these two videos have helped you see what this future looks like and that, thanks to how flexible electricity is, it doesn’t need to be difficult to get there or be scary at all. We’re in the early days of the transition, of course, and there’s a lot that we’ll be learning in a short period of time, including how to make each of these solutions more attainable. But I’m certain we’ll get there - and probably sooner than you might imagine. ♫ astoundingly smooth jazz ♫ But here’s a simpler idea: sharing.
Right now, general pract - I don’t like how that went. Gonna restart. But, they’re not the only way to meet the goal of spreading elecTRICK deman -- elecTRICK demand. While they are cool, this section is pretty long because of the one hundred - [brain.exe is not responding] Oh! [laughs] Oh, that’s a clunkier sentence than I realized.
If you’re rural, you’re probably using - ah, crap. Don’t change the words in the script! Provide you with a combination heat and light source with one of these things [click click click click] I ho - was hoping this would go smoother. [FWOOMP] there we go! Isn't a heat pump water heater like the coolest thing you've ever heard of? Like, I know I'm a nerd who likes any good heat pump, but the fact that it'll just gobble up the energy around it is fascinating. Plus, it means that any heat that leaks out through the insulation - well, it will just take it right back! Neat.