When a huge storm snuffed out hydroelectric power in many parts of Ontario and Quebec in May, not only were many electric vehicle (EV) owners able to keep driving, but they also weren’t left in the dark.
Raymond Leury, president of the Electric Vehicle Council of Ottawa, a non-profit that promotes electric vehicle adoption, didn’t hear of any EV owners who were left high and dry, even as many Ottawa-area residents lost electricity for more than 10 days.
Leury thinks much of that can be attributed to the different mindset of EV owners. “Typically, you plug your EV in when you get home in the evening, so that it’s always at a high rate of charge in the morning,” he says. “You’re always starting every day with a full charge.”
That’s different from owners of gas-powered cars, who might park their car with a quarter tank, assuming they can swing by a gas station whenever they need. Leury notes that gas pumps also need electricity to function. As a result, many of the gas stations just outside the blackout area had long lineups. Some even ran out of gas. “Really, you’re further ahead with an EV when the power goes out.”
Ottawa-area resident Mike Banks had a 60-per-cent charge on his Hyundai Ioniq 5 when the storm hit. It’s one of the few EVs that is capable of using the car’s battery to charge electrical items. Banks ran an extension cord from his Ioniq 5 through the window of his house, to the kitchen and plugged in his fridge and some lights.
Banks has the top trim Ioniq 5, with an extra outlet built in between the back seats. When he saw his neighbour across the street was also without power, Banks offered him some juice from the car. They ran a second extension cord across the street and plugged in the neighbour’s fridge. “I ran it for a day and a half, my house and his house, keeping everything on,” Banks says.
When his area’s power came back on after 36 hours, he charged up his car to 80 per cent, and drove to his in-laws across town, who were still without electricity. He hooked up the car to their fridges, a freezer and lights. “I left it there for 10 days, and when I picked it up, it still had a 60-per-cent charge,” Banks said with a laugh. “Fridges and lights only use minimal power.”
When the lights went out at Monique Beaulieu’s home in Whitby, Ont., she wasn’t worried. After all, she’d had her 2018 Hyundai Ioniq plugged in overnight and had a full charge. As soon as the power came back on after 10 hours, she offered up her Level 2 home charger to fellow EV owners on a Facebook EV owners group.
“No one took me up on the offer,” says Beaulieu. She even added her charger to PlugShare, an EV charging locator app, which allows homeowners to list their home charging stations. But even then, she didn’t have any customers.
She found it ironic when, shortly after the power went out, a few friends teased her. “They didn’t have power and they thought I was stuck,” Beaulieu recalls. “But the truth was the other way around. I was fine and could get around. They couldn’t find a gas station to fill their car’s gas tank.”
According to Dan Wheeler, a representative at California-based EV locator app PlugShare, during the devastating Texas blackout of February, 2021, which lasted more than two weeks, fewer than 6 per cent of EV owners were unable to drive because of the blackout. Many had already topped up their vehicle batteries in anticipation of the storm, and a few had a battery energy storage system at home, like a Tesla Powerwall.
Others reported that they used their EV to charge various devices, such as an internet router, and some even used their car as a warm place to sleep – without worrying about carbon monoxide fumes.
Wheeler reports that a study done in June, 2022, which surveyed 6,999 EV drivers in Canada, found that 6 per cent had solar panels, while 3.5 per cent had battery-based energy storage systems. “We think that may be heavily indexed toward EV drivers, who want to be ready for a blackout,” he says. Wheeler has even heard rumours of EV owners who build their own home power walls from recycled e-scooter batteries.
Home energy storage systems are tentatively becoming a reality, like Alectra Inc.’s Powerhouse Hybrid pilot project. In the City of Markham, which is a partner on this project along with Enbridge Inc. and Toronto Metropolitan University, 10 homes have been equipped with a basement battery that is charged by rooftop solar panels. Each home is a micro-grid, and is part of a system that allows Alectra to distribute energy more efficiently among participating houses, supply power back to the main grid when there is a surplus, or run independently of the main grid if there is a power outage.
“The main objective of Powerhouse Hybrid is to reduce greenhouse gases, but it offers more outage protection, not just for the house, [but also for] electric vehicles,” says Neetika Sathe, vice-president of Alectra’s Green Energy and Technology Centre.
The pilot project has been funded by various government subsidies. During the power outage in May, Powerhouse Hybrid participants said they had greater peace of mind, knowing they could keep their food cold, their phones running and their electric vehicles charged.
Although the project hasn’t advanced to where homeowners could list their home chargers to the public for sharing during an outage, Sathe thinks it could happen. “I’m a firm believer in a shared economy,” she says. During the storm, she offered her neighbours a chance to use her home charger and generator to keep their homes up and running.
Sathe sees energy sharing not just as an opportunity for people to list their chargers, but even earn environmental points (Alectra had a program where you could collect environmental points and exchange them for goods and services with participating local merchants) or cash. “I get goosebumps just thinking about it, because it’s the intuitive, right thing to do.”