A decade ago, the idea of a car powering a building was science fiction. No longer. Now it has become a vision of how cars (and many other appliances that are part of the Internet of Things) can create a new kind of power grid – a virtual power grid.
In Japan, Nissan is creating a new “EV ecosystem”, where cars store and share power with homes, businesses and the wider grid, not only during emergencies but every day.
And it has developed the Re-Leaf, a special kind of vehicle for mobile emergency power supply that can operate several devices at the same time, like an electric jackhammer or a compressed air blower for clean-up work, a 10-litre soup kettle, an intensive care ventilator, or a floodlight.
Nissan’s popular electric vehicle, the Leaf, has increasingly been a part of Japan’s disaster response since March 11, 2011’s Great East Japan earthquake and tsunami. Japan experiences frequent typhoons as well as 10% of the world’s earthquakes, and EVs have proved to be powerful tools for community resilience.
After nearly 5 million homes lost power, Nissan provided a small fleet of 65 first-generation electric LEAFs – launched less than three months earlier – for use in the stricken areas free of charge, as well as 50 Nissan Patrol four wheel drive vehicles.
The idea to use EVs as portable power stations began with hospitals, who approached Nissan for help keeping medical equipment and heat going for patients. Then it expanded to homes and businesses.
A fully charged LEAF e+ with a fully charged 62-kilowatt hour battery can provide enough electricity to power an average Japanese home for up to four days, charge 6,200 mobile phones, keep the lights and fridges on at a local convenience store, or keep a nursery school room cool during nap time.
During those critical first hours and days, electric vehicles can move around disaster areas and deliver power where it’s needed most. With no exhaust fumes and completely silent, a LEAF can be parked inside a building. It can recharge where the power supply has been restored, and then drive on to another hard-hit region.
In May 2018, Nissan launched the Blue Switch project to demonstrate how electric vehicles can be used as power sources for purposes beyond mobility. “We’re using the technology now, for real solutions, to meet immediate needs,” says Asako Hoshino, executive vice president at Nissan and chairwoman of the company’s management committee for Japan and ASEAN.
Given that electricity is typically restored before gasoline supplies return to normal, Nissan has established partnerships with a growing number of municipalities in Japan to make Nissan EVs their official vehicles. As well as offering support during emergencies, the vehicles can also provide day-to-day emission-free transportation. Through these same partnerships, local Nissan dealers also supply their test-drive EVs for free during power outages. By December 2020, Nissan had signed 100 agreements, with 75 of them relating to how Nissan’s electric vehicles can get straight to work the moment a disaster strikes.
Under another partnership, a chain of convenience stores are using LEAFs to restore power during emergencies so residents can buy essential goods, from food and drinks to diapers and toiletries, when most other businesses are still shut down.
At the 2020 Japan Resilience Awards, the Blue Switch program was cited for showing the potential electric cars offer during emergencies, along with their role in energy management and the battle against climate change.
Already, the power in the batteries of Nissan’s EVs out on the roads have the potential to power half a million Japanese households for a full day, the company says. Blue Switch makes it possible to see how static and vulnerable electricity grids can be turned into dynamic, flexible and highly distributed grids.
Nissan has expanded its Blue Switch program to the ASEAN region. The program promotes the use of EVs to help communities, from providing energy-management solutions to disaster relief efforts.
“Electrification is central to our strategy in ASEAN, and the expansion of Blue Switch to our region is a critical milestone in fulfilling our long-term vision for empowering mobility and beyond,” said Isao Sekiguchi, regional VP, marketing and sales, Nissan ASEAN. “Through this initiative, we look forward to building strategic partnerships with local governments and partners in Thailand, the Philippines, and other markets in Asean to make this a reality.”
“By having thousands of EVs available on standby, either as disaster support vehicles or plugged into the network through Vehicle-to-Grid, they’re uniquely capable of creating a virtual power plant to maintain a supply of energy,” says Helen Perry, head of electric passenger cars and infrastructure for Nissan in Europe.
Japan isn’t the only area that experiences recurring natural disasters. Southeast Asia has an intense monsoon season, while the Caribbean and the U.S. have a hurricane season that averages one to two hurricane landfalls a year in Florida alone. A 2016 U.S. report from the nonprofit National Association of State Energy Officials emphasized the potential of electric vehicles: “The ability to bring power where it is needed, even on a local scale, can be an invaluable resource during emergencies.”
“When people get an EV, they start to see the world differently,” says Ryusuke Hayashi, senior manager of EV operations at Nissan. “I know someone who became more environmentally conscious and even started growing their own food. That makes the idea of using their EV to power the home a natural next step. Mobility impacts the way you live.”
How electric vehicles can help communities bounce back after a disaster. Nissan Stories, Sep. 20, 2019
Nissan Leaf comes to the rescue in typhoon-stricken Cebu. Visor, Dec. 23, 2021
Virtual Power Plants Offer A Climate-Forward Response To Increasingly Hot Summers. Next City, Aug. 4, 2023
After Natural Disasters, Electric Vehicles Come to the Rescue. Bloomberg, Nov. 7, 2022
How Nissan is using electric cars to power disaster recovery. Nissan Stories, Dec. 16, 2020