Summer blackouts beware: Cars can be turned into backup generators


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Summer is almost here and with it, the high temperatures and cranked air conditioning that often lead to power outages. Some Angelenos may have considered a costly gas-powered generator for backup power, but another option is already sitting in their driveways: cars.

Power inverters on the market connect to car batteries to keep home appliances running. Just pop the hood, connect the inverter directly to the battery of a running car and thread the power cord from the inverter into the house. A refrigerator, television, lights or other devices that usually plug into a wall outlet would instead connect to the inverter power cord.


The inverter, similar in size to a hardcover book, converts direct current, or DC power, coming from the car battery into alternating current, or AC, used in most homes.

PowerBright, based in Coral Springs, Fla., makes inverters in a variety of power configurations. A 900-watt version, costing about $60, is strong enough to run a sump pump, freezer or refrigerator, and it can handle the peak power surge from first plugging in a refrigerator, Chief Executive Gil Hetzroni said. A 2,300-watt version, Hetzroni said, can power many appliances at the same time.

Power inverters work with gas-powered cars as well as electric vehicles, but Nissan Motor Co. and Toyota Motor Corp. have both developed equipment specifically for electric cars. The bi-directional electric vehicle charger, which Nissan calls the Leaf to Home electricity supply system and Toyota dubs V2H for vehicle-to-home charging system, can reverse the flow of electricity from electric car to house in case of blackouts.

The chargers aren’t yet available in the U.S., but they are being piloted in Japan. Nissan and its research partner General Electric previewed the system at a meeting of the Society of Automotive Engineers in April. In that demonstration, a Nissan Leaf powered LED lighting, a fan and a wine refrigerator. “We could’ve powered much more, but the limitations were the booth,” said Matt Nielsen, principal scientist in General Electric’s electrical engineering division.

Most Leaf drivers return to their homes with 12 kilowatt-hours of charge left in their vehicles, Nielsen said, which is enough “to power quite a few circuits in your home for a couple hours.”

“We all have to keep in mind why blackouts happen. Sometimes it’s weather. Other times, grids get stressed ... from people coming home and turning on their air conditioning and plasma TVs and ovens,” said Nielsen, who also demonstrated a system called the Nucleus home energy manager. It monitors how much energy a home is using and interacts with the Leaf to charge at off-peak times, reducing the threat of blackouts in the first place.


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-- Susan Carpenter