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Hundreds of thousands of Prius owners are literally sitting on the answer to the widespread power outages forecast to occur when Hurricane Sandy makes landfall in the the next 24 hours.

Hurricane Sandy, dubbed the 'Frankenstorm' of the decade, is predicted to cause a great deal of property damage in the American Northeast, cutting electric power to millions of customers that could take days or even weeks to restore.  Yet for hundreds of thousands of owners of Toyota Priuses and similar electric-drive vehicles, they would be able, if the technology were more widely available, to keep the lights on and a few vital appliances running during the blackout. They're literally sitting on the answer.

Located under the rear seat of every Toyota Prius is a 1.3kWh battery capable of providing hours of lighting in an emergency, if frugally applied.  Cars like the Nissan Leaf and the Chevrolet Volt could run even longer or handle a even greater electrical loads with their 24kWh and 16kWh battery packs, respectively.

So, why aren't Volt and Leaf and Prius owners in Delaware, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and New York plugging their cars into their homes in preparation for possible power outages in the eye of the storm?  Simply put, carmakers aren't yet offering that capability, at least not here in North America.  In Japan, it's another story.

In the wake of the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, emergency personnel discovered that in the decimated prefectures, cars like the little Mitsubishi i-MiEV electric car proved invaluable in providing not only mobility but also, in effect, served as mobile battery banks for running communications and medical equipment. Counterintuitively, while drivers could find electric power to recharge their EVs, all of the gasoline stations were out of commission.  The ability to respond in an emergency proved so valuable that  Mitsubishi, Nissan, and Toyota are either offering options  or are working on bringing them to the market that will allow their cars to provide emergency electric power to an owner's home, or what is referred to as V2H.  A new television commercial for the Nissan LEAF in Australia even touts the ability to soon 'power your home' with their electric car.

So, why aren't they offering this capability here in America, and especially the Northeast, which has experienced more than its share of power outages over the last couple years?

Two factors: cost and safety.

First the cost issue.  Take the Prius hybrid, for example.  It is designed to keep its relatively small battery (compared to the other e-drive cars now on the market) charged through its gasoline engine and regenerative braking that converts the car's kinetic energy (calculated by weight and motion) back into electrical energy.  In effect, the Prius is a rolling electric power generator, as is the Chevy Volt, but they are designed to propel the car. Any grid-power they take in is intended to move the car, so all of the onboard electronics are designed with that sole objective in mind.  They are not -- currently -- designed to send electric power from the car back into the grid. They could do so, but it would cost extra and it also presents warranty issues. Will even more frequent discharges of the battery shorten its life? Probably, and that means higher warranty costs for future battery replacements or having to increase the capacity of the battery to compensate. The net result is higher production costs and sticker prices.

Safety is the other concern. You don't want electric current from an e-drive vehicle circulating in a neighborhood where the power is supposed to be out and utility repair crews are at work. The 200 volts (650V peak) in the Prius battery pack is enough to kill you if it's not handled properly.

So how do you prevent such a tragedy?  In an emergency V2H scenario, a Prius - both conventonal and Plugin -- or Volt owner would want a separate circuit that does not tie into the local electric power grid, thus ensuring repair crews are not exposed to unexpected power on what they assumed was a dead line.

In its simplest form, there'd be a one or two 110V outlets in the trunk of the car into which the owner could plug an extension chord off of which a few lights could be run, a laptop computer, the refrigerator, for a few hours of the day, depending on which car we're talking about. The bigger the battery pack -- assuming it was fully charged prior to the emergency -- the longer the power could be drawn and/or the more appliances that could be run; though it should be noted that compared to the typical Japanese home, American homes consume at least twice as much energy, so don't expect to keep all your electric devices powered until the grid is restored.

Can we expect to see carmakers offering this capability someday? Actually, GM did offer it in their Silverado Hybrid pickup which had two 110V plugs in it: one in the cab and one all-weather outlet in the truck bed.  But for now, it appears the V2H option will be offered only in Japan, which has teetered on the brink of region-wide blackouts for months now as all of its nuclear power plants were taken offline for safety inspections.

Carmakers will respond here only if there is sufficient public demand for V2H.  Until they do, you can cobble together your own DIY V2H system, but be advised, you better know what you're doing and understand that you are probably voiding the manufacturer warranty.  Also note that most DIY solutions involve taping into a Prius' 12V auxiliary battery, not the larger NiMH traction pack, and running the car's gasoline engine, which is much cleaner in terms of emissions than a typical emergency generator. You'll have power as long as you have gasoline.

Here are a couple articles on using the Prius as a emergency power source:

To learn more about electric vehicles and they role they will play in transitioning transportation away from its dependence on petroleum, subscribe to EV

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