An Energy Correspondent Hunts for Alternatives

Few things cause more anxiety than flipping on the light switch only to find there’s no power.

Power outages have become increasingly common, as the electric grids strain under the pressure of extreme weather events, such as heat waves and cold snaps. As the alternative energy correspondent for The New York Times, I follow the new technologies that consumers use to keep the lights on during these moments, which are becoming more frequent because of climate change.

A once unlikely backup source recently caught my attention: cars. A small number of Americans use the batteries in their electric vehicles to power their homes during an outage. Energy and auto experts told me they expected the method to catch on.

My editor on the Business desk and I had long discussed doing an article about homeowners on this cutting edge. And as heat waves began smothering much of the Southern United States earlier this summer, the time seemed right. Extreme heat during recent years has caused power failures and forced occasional rolling blackouts to save electricity.

I’m based in Los Angeles, in part because California has become a hub for clean energy technologies. But for our article, which was published last week, we wanted to see how alternative energy technology was being used in other areas of the United States. We picked Nashville, a place not known for electric vehicles, home batteries or solar panels.

Connecting with readers in articles about utilities and energy is tricky. Poles and wires are not typically the sexiest of topics in a world of high-stakes politics, war, social media and the glamour of Hollywood. So I look for people who can help walk readers through the topic in an engaging way.

On a regular basis, I check in with my network of sources, peruse emails and chat with various companies about the latest developments in alternative energy. For this article, I cast a fairly wide net; a contact at Schneider Electric suggested I reach out to a few homes using E.V. batteries, including people who lived in California and New Jersey.

But it was John and Rachelle Reigard, of Mount Juliet, Tenn., just outside Nashville, who caught our attention.

Earlier this year, my colleague Peter Eavis and I asked readers what they used as backup power for their homes. Hundreds responded, largely saying they bought generators or solar and battery systems.

Blackouts happen frequently in Mount Juliet during bad weather, and the Reigard family wanted a backup system. They considered a generator but opted for an electric vehicle: a Ford F-150 Lightning pickup truck that they would use not only for transportation but as a power source for their home if the electric grid were to fail.

“The truck is the battery,” John Reigard said, a hint of pride in his voice.

The family purchased the F-150 Lightning just over a year ago, and they have lost power several times since: at Christmastime, after family members had arrived for the holidays; during a late winter storm in March; and on a summer day, when their 19-year-old daughter was home alone.

But each time, within minutes of the lights going out, the F-150 powered all the essentials in their six-bedroom, four-bathroom house, besides the air-conditioner. They loved the electric truck so much that they bought 10 more for their construction business, saving them about $300 a month per vehicle on fuel and maintenance costs that they would have spent on gasoline-powered trucks, they said.

Closer to home, I interviewed Pedro Pizarro, chairman of the board for the Edison Electric Institute, a utility industry trade organization, and president of Edison International, the parent company of Southern California Edison.

Over the last few years, Southern California Edison, one of California’s three investor-owned utilities, experienced or faced the threat of rolling blackouts during the summer months because of extreme heat. Generally, utilities look for large-scale solutions for those kinds of challenges, but Mr. Pizarro welcomed the consumer resource to help avoid the need to cut power during high demand.

“This is a really interesting, exciting, attractive opportunity,” Mr. Pizarro said. “We think that electric vehicles can interact with the grid in a whole number of ways.”

I’ve spent half of my 31 years as a reporter covering utilities and energy. The industries I report on change faster with each year. When I started on this beat, I didn’t predict our cars would become part of the electricity system, but with E.V.s becoming a kind of Swiss Army knife for consumer energy, my combustion engine might go electric sooner than later.

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