This year cities, states, and nations worldwide have faced deadly heatwaves that set new standards of physical suffering. The July 4 holiday marked America’s independence, but celebrations offered no freedom from the stifling temperatures – that day was our planet’s hottest ever, with a global average just short of 73°F (22.7°C).
Climate experts expect still more heat records to fall in the coming years, so the growing strain on our electrical grid and resulting brown and blackouts could leave us longing for a backup source to keep our home air conditioning on life support, even if only for a short while. And if we play our cards wisely, we may find that temporary boost well within reach – in our driveways. But not quite yet.
“If the prospect of power shortages caused by excessive demand doesn’t prompt action, there’s always the threat of solar anomalies”
The booming global demand for electric cars will soon drive their market share to nearly 20%, way up from only 4% in 2020. And since an EV is essentially an electric power source on wheels, it would be easy to think we could just plug in from our homes to tap a reserve. It doesn’t work that way, though, because electric vehicles rely on direct current (DC) while our homes require alternating current (AC).
For a practical workaround, we need two things to become more prevalent. One for the home, and one for the car.
First, we need the ability to pull DC power more seamlessly from home solar panels. That would permit quicker and more efficient EV charging and would allow for bypassing the cumbersome AC-to-DC conversion that’s currently required for charging most EVs at home.
Second, we need more EV models to accommodate bidirectional charging, allowing two-way transfer of power between an EV’s battery cache and a residence. At that point, EVs can substitute for back-up generators in a crunch and/or augment a home’s kilowatt options when grid access becomes costly or unreliable.
Certain countries have figured all of this out. Others, including the us, have not. That’s not because we can’t, only because we’ve not chosen to. And if the prospect of power shortages caused by excessive demand doesn’t prompt action, there’s always the threat of solar anomalies, in which outbursts of radiation and electrified dust and gas can interfere with myriad earth-based functions, including satellite transmissions, directional navigation, and yes, electric power grids.
Solar storms powerful enough to cause widespread disruption are cyclical and their strength is exceedingly unpredictable. We never know when a big one might hit and incapacitate a power grid. What we do know, however, is that heatwaves are becoming more severe and more widespread. And the next time those soaring temperatures trigger a power supply stoppage, we might just be able to tap our EVs for the juice we need to carry us through a scorching stretch. And wouldn’t that be cool?
Greg Winfree is the Agency Director of the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, a member of ITS America’s Board of Directors, and a former Assistant Secretary of Transportation.
Illustration: Ian Parratt