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Electric cars are not just vehicles. They are big batteries.


Joe Biden is self-confessed “Car man”. Recently, he’s become an electric car guy. And his fellow Americans want them to be electric car owners, too. Transportation is responsible for 29 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions in the United States, and Biden’s ambitious climate policy, which aims to create a zero-economy In the US by 2050, it depends in part on Americans switching from gas to electric cars and trucks.

But Biden faces roadblocks. While the bipartisan infrastructure bill he signed into law in November included funding to build half a million electric chargers nationwide, the Build Better bill that would have included thousands of dollars in tax credits to help Americans buy electric cars is currently stalled. in the United States. The Senate as Democrats is trying to find a compromise that satisfies Senator Joe Manchin (D-Va), who has refused to sign it in its current form. Another challenge is how Americans feel about electric cars compared to conventional cars: A 2021 Pew Research Center report found that 51 percent of American adults oppose a proposal to phase out gasoline cars and trucks.

So what will it take to convince more people to embrace electric vehicles? One answer might be to rethink what electric vehicles actually are. Most Americans, including Biden, talk about electric cars only as transportation — understandable, given they have motors and wheels and drive us. But they are much more than just cars: They are batteries, and batteries have uses far beyond transportation. If done correctly, incorporating electric vehicles into American society can help prevent blackouts, stabilize the country’s crumbling electric grid, and make solar and wind energy more reliable sources of energy for more people. The first step is to stop thinking of electric cars as battery-powered cars, and instead see them as batteries that happen to be inside cars.

Getting there won’t be easy. “This kind of cognition problem can be challenging because it really is a paradigm shift,” said Sam Houston, senior analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists, a science-focused nonprofit organization based in Massachusetts. Historically, vehicles have mostly had an individual use in American society: to transport people and goods from one place to another. Outside of ride-sharing, cars only serve their owners. Most gas cars spend most of the day idle while we are at home or at work. But electric cars can do a lot when they aren’t moving.

“What we need to get to is not just thinking about transportation vehicles and a network to support those vehicles, but some kind of a mutually beneficial relationship between the networks and the vehicles,” Houston told Recode. For example, she mentioned renewable energy: One of the biggest challenges in integrating renewable energy into the grid is that it is unpredictable. Sometimes there can be too many Wind and solar energy, and there is no good way to store the surplus. Instead, the additional renewable energy often goes to untapped waste. Houston said electric cars could be a solution to this problem.

For example, a car left on the charger in an office parking lot during the workday can optimize its charging schedule so that most or all of the energy used to charge the car comes from renewable sources, making the most of clean energy that would otherwise go wasted.

Extensive charging infrastructure could help make the integration of electric vehicles into the grid a reality.
Drew Angerer / Getty Images

Electric vehicles can also be beneficial to the grid even if there is no clean energy available. Utility engineers make continuous adjustments to the amount of power flowing through the grid to ensure electricity is generated and delivered at a constant frequency. Generating too little power to meet demand is one of the most obvious reasons for blackouts, but they happen too often. Power is just a big problem. Keri Baker, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Colorado Boulder and a member of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers, explained that electric cars can act like a sponge in those situations.

“If you have a bunch of electric vehicles in the parking lot, they can charge or stop charging in order to make small, subtle adjustments in the supply-demand balance to maintain frequency,” Becker told Recode. Instead of just fully charging their batteries once they’re plugged in, cars that sit on chargers for extended periods of time can wait for a charge to help the grid get rid of the excess power, or they can keep a portion of their batteries to help regulate frequency.

This is just the beginning. One of the most ambitious uses for electric car batteries comes from a concept called bi-directional charging, or sending electricity back from an EV to charge things ranging from power tools on construction sites to entire homes during a power outage.

This is especially tempting in an age of more frequent and more severe blackouts due to severe weather: electric car owners can get power at home during a power outage by plugging their car into a charger in their home – which sometimes eliminates the need to die. The carbon monoxide-emitting diesel generators that many people now rely on.

Electric vehicle manufacturers are starting to use this idea as a selling point. Volkswagen’s electric vehicles will support bi-directional charging starting this year, and the upcoming Ford F-150 Lightning, an electric version of the country’s most popular pickup truck, is designed to be able to power an entire home for up to three days. An early announcement of the F-150 Lightning, released about three months after a series of winter storms in Texas that cut power to millions and killed hundreds across the state in 2021, showed the truck’s credentials: It can “help build your home” , the narrator of the advertisement said: “And if necessary, Energy That house.”

Marketing seems to be working; As of December, nearly 200,000 people had pre-ordered the F-150 Lightning. “Ten years ago, I would have never imagined that Ford would have released an electric F-150, and I would have never expected how many people would have preordered it, especially in rural and conservative areas,” Becker said. “Climate change is hitting everywhere in the United States, so whether you believe in the science behind it or not, you want to protect your family. Having a big battery that can be a backup generator is just one way to do that.”

President Joe Biden, wearing his signature aviator sunglasses and hands at the wheel, looks at news photographers from the driver's seat of an F-150 Lightning pickup truck.
President Biden took the F-150 Lightning for a tour during a visit to the Ford test site in Michigan last May.
Nicholas Kamm/AFP via Getty Images

However, not all automakers are as open to two-way charging as Ford and Volkswagen. The batteries in electric cars are larger versions of the lithium-ion batteries used in phones and laptops, and they degrade over time just as the batteries in our phones do — meaning that the range of electric vehicles will decrease over time. Most electric cars come with battery warranties that void if the batteries are discharged to power something else, in part because constantly charging and discharging a battery can degrade it faster.

Baker isn’t quite as concerned about deterioration as some others in the industry. “Every time I have these conversations with people about bi-directional charging, the reaction is always that it’s going to degrade the battery,” Becker told Recode. “But if you take a look at how often people replace their cars in the States, I don’t think that’s going to be an obstacle in the way. In terms of the age of the car, I feel like we’re blowing this too far.” Americans tend to keep their cars for an average of 12 years, and electric vehicles often enter the used car market long before their batteries deteriorate significantly.

Batteries can still be useful even if they are too degraded for use in cars. Houston told Recode that they tend to consider them very degraded once they can only hold about 80 percent of their original capacity, which is still a significant amount of power. “We really need to figure out the reuse and recycling angle for after the car is finished and the battery may have a lot of remaining capacity,” Houston said.

One possible solution — and another reason to see electric vehicles as more than vehicles — is that old EV batteries could be removed from cars and used to store solar and wind energy. The idea is already seeing some oomph: A startup called B2U Storage Solutions has set up an energy storage facility in California that stores enough power in an array of 160 used Nissan Leaf batteries to power more than 90 homes a day. Hyundai is working with a solar developer and utility company serving San Antonio, Texas, to create a similar facility.

An obvious next step, Becker says, is to solve the problems of degradation and recycling at the same time by setting up processes that allow electric vehicle owners to easily replace their old batteries in the same way you can replace the battery in your phone. Those degraded batteries can then be sent to energy storage facilities such as those in California.

On a technical level, it’s very easy to set up reusing electric vehicle batteries for non-transportation uses, explained Mike Jacobs, senior energy analyst at the Union of Concerned Scientists. The same cable that supplies power to an electric vehicle can be used to draw power from the battery and use it to power the home. But it’s more complicated when it comes to energy policy and logistics in the United States. Most homes are not wired to receive backup power in the event of a blackout—Ford’s website includes a warning that backup power will only work “when the home is properly equipped” with a switch that disconnects the home from the grid. And just as many parts of the US power grid are not prepared to integrate solar and wind energy into normal operations, they are not equipped to draw power from electric vehicles when needed.

The main problem, Jacobs said, is that utility companies have historically monopolized the nation’s power generation, and are unwilling to give up their literal and figurative power. “It really comes down to the tool’s enthusiasm to sort it out,” Jacobs said. “And whether there is any value for them to spend time on it.” In terms of profit, there doesn’t seem to be a reason a utility would want to do so.

One glaring example of utilities suspending power generation in the United States comes from solar panels, Baker told Recode. For the safety of line personnel, utilities set up circuits in most homes to simply shutdown in the event of a power outage, even if backup power is available. “If you have rooftop solar, chances are, during a grid outage, the rooftop solar won’t be able to power your home,” Becker said. “This is a big problem because people are buying solar energy thinking they will power their homes during a power outage.” To make rooftop solar — and backup power from electric vehicles — work during a blackout, Becker explained, homeowners would have to connect their panels and EV charger on a circuit separate from utility-provided power, a costly proposition that also negates the benefits of incorporating electric vehicle batteries. in the network.

but we don’t have To choose between grid and backup power from electric car batteries: they can co-exist, and their effective integration can have a significant impact on emissions. “The technology is here,” Houston said. “It’s a matter of breaking down politics and administrative barriers.”

Breaking down these barriers will help revolutionize the way we think about electricity generation, just as using our cars as batteries would. Electric cars are by no means a panacea for our climate problems — there are plenty of sources of greenhouse gas emissions outside of cars, and cutting transportation emissions will only go if our electric cars get their energy from fossil-fuel stations. But their potential extends far beyond their wheels, and more Americans realizing that it could mean more will decide to switch to electric. Saving our planet will require big and bold changes; Purchasing a battery that just so happens to save transportation is the rare tangible contribution that ordinary people can make to help solve the climate crisis.

“Actually, when we talk about giving up fossil fuels, it all matters,” Jacobs said.

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