Assessing Sandy: Are Electric Cars A Better Bet In Emergencies?

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BMW ActiveE electric car at closed NJ gas station after Hurricane Sandy [photo: Tom Moloughney]

BMW ActiveE electric car at closed NJ gas station after Hurricane Sandy [photo: Tom Moloughney]

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For many of us, lines at gas stations and homes without power are no more than news, but millions on the U.S. East Coast are still coping with the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Many areas are still without power, and gasoline is a worryingly rare commodity for a transport system utterly dependent on it.

But for many with electric cars, the latter hasn't been such a problem.

Even those without power to homes have been able to charge elsewhere--rather than queueing hours for gas to find the pumps have run dry.

Friend of GreenCarReports, BMW ActiveE owner Tom Moloughney, is one of those still able to travel to work in New Jersey every day.

In fact, it's almost business as usual for him, reports The New York Times.

Between charging at home--using a natural gas generator since the power went out--and charging at his restaurant, Moloughney hasn't experienced any problems on his 100-mile round trip each day.

And Moloughney isn't the only electric car driver avoiding the chaos--those using the three free chargers at his restaurant are likely getting by okay too.

When an earthquake and tsunami struck the east coast of Japan in 2011, meltdown at the Fukushima power plant left huge areas without power.

Mitsubishi 'i' Emergency Power Supply

Mitsubishi 'i' Emergency Power Supply

There, the role of the electric car has taken on a different level of importance. With large battery packs, several Japanese carmakers are turning electric cars into backup power units--able to provide electricity to those with zero access to power.

Whether a similar system would work in the U.S. or not is a different matter--North American homes typically use three times the power of their Japanese counterparts. But it may be enough to keep essentials like the refrigerator or cooker up and running during power outages--as Doron Shalvi has found, using his Nissan Leaf as a power source.

Not that electric cars are perfect in disasters.

If power is truly out, then it's only a matter of time until your EV runs out of juice. Even worse, the car itself could be underwater. Or its charging station submerged.

But in some parts of New York and New Jersey right now, electric cars are suddenly making a whole lot of sense.


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Comments (13)
  1. You did not mention solar panels as a viable source of energy to refuel EVs and homes.

  2. Solar panels are connected to the grid so they wouldn't work when the grid is down. Unless you could feed them straight into your EV's battery...

  3. Indeed, grid-tie solar is no good in those situations.
    Safely feeding the panels DC directly into the car traction battery would require a lot of custom electronics and interconnects -- doable but unrealistic IMHO.

    I've looked into this problem a bit in the past, and so far my not-so-optimal but reasonably cheap solution would be to wire the solar panels so that they can be disconnected from the grid-tie inverter, and put in groups of a voltage adequate for regular DC-DCs (150 to 350 VDC). Use either a big one (pricey) or tie a couple smaller ones together to end up with, say, a clean 48 VDC 40+ A. Hook that to a regular 1.5kW+ 120V inverter, which in turns feed the trickle-charger -- and/or possibly other things, e.g. fridge etc.

  4. This is exactly the approach one needs to take. Place your solar array and inverter on your side of the main breaker. If the grid goes down, just throw the breaker and you run on your own solar.

  5. Well, it's usually not that simple. For safety reasons, grid-tie solar inverters will not output anything until after they verify that power is present, stable and within very tight tolerances. Those are of no help in power outages.

    On/off-grid systems, designed from the get-go for such situations, do exist. However they require batteries and are therefore a lot bulkier, and more expensive to buy and maintain.

    I found no standard system which provide "limited, daytime only" backup power, ie without battery.
    Hence the above idea to simulate the battery using the solar panels and DC-DC converter(s), when needed. This is mutually exclusive with the grid-tie inverter, and has limited output so it will only power specific appliances.

  6. I think cars such as Volt is better in those situation than the BEV like Leaf.

    The problem with Leaf is the fact that it still depends on the electric grid to "fill up" the car. If the grid is down for extended period of time, then you lose "mobility". In this case, some of the owners are able to charge at "work" where there are power. But if there are no power at home or work, then you probably don't want to lose the ability to "leave" if you choose to.

    Cars such as Volt or other strong Plugins can operate on either energy source. So, it gives you more freedom. The more choice you have, the better it gets during diasters.

    If Volt can be converted to operate on "multi-fuel" it would be even better.

  7. Sounds like a real prepper's car...explains the weird commercials with the zombies in them I guess. I wonder if it could be made EMP proof...

  8. Everything can be made EMP proof, it is just a matter of cost and degree...

    It doesn't have to be the "end of world" situation. I have lived through some of those diasters where there no electric power for over a week and still need mobility.

    A Leaf would work in those situation. But most Leaf owners aren't single car owners...

  9. Maybe Model S is the ideal car to face doomsday scenarios. 85 KWH of raw power to comfortably run your airco while the world around you falls apart.

  10. Like I said, I am ready for the $35k Tesla...

  11. That's the down side of inter-tied solar.... though I'm managing to power a Leaf using solar without inter-tie, mainly by charging during the day (a 2.8Kw (UK) charger doesn't help, it would be much easier using a 1.5 Kw US charger). Sandy hit us here in Jamaica too, when it was a lot smaller, and solar kept me running house and car for the week that the power was out.

  12. A group of EV club members in the Washington DC area prepared their Leaf's for Sandy by hooking up power inverters tapped into the 12V battery system, since the traction battery keeps the 12 V charged with the DC/DC converter when the car is "on". It wasn't Leaf-At-Home, but it was enough to power a refrigerator for up to 3 days, which was a very reassuring capability to have.

    You can see the details at .

  13. Emergency preparedness is one of the main reasons to purchase an EV. I can make electricity in various ways (solar, wind, hydro, natural gas, gasoline, diesel). I cannot make unleaded gasoline or store enough of it to be useful in an extended emergency.

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