Century-old Ford Motor Co. did something in May that the clean energy industry hadn't yet accomplished: combine clean backup power and an electric vehicle.
"Ford is the first in the U.S. to offer this capability on an electric truck," the company asserted with the launch of its electric F-150 Lightning. But it also appears to be the first providing backup power from any mass-market electric vehicle. Even electric car pioneer Tesla doesn't offer this yet, and its leaders have questioned the efficacy of exporting power from vehicles.
Instead, clean energy companies ask customers in need of backup to pay thousands of dollars for a lithium-ion battery pack to sit in the house alongside an even more expensive solar array (some offer no-money-down financing options as well).
Tesla's Powerwall may be the most recognizable battery brand, but many others work the same way. During a grid outage, whether due to a storm or cold snap or wildfire, the battery powers the house and recharges from solar panels, if available. The household might also own an electric car, but in a blackout, it would drain power, not provide it.
U.S. home battery sales have set record after record in recent quarters, albeit from a small baseline. After smashing records in 2020, monthly installations hit 4,500 in January, said analyst Chloe Holden, who tracks the market for research firm Wood Mackenzie.
"Storage customers repeatedly cite backup power as their number one reason for purchasing a residential storage system," Holden said. "It is far and away the biggest driver of the residential storage market’s growth in the last two years."
But box-on-the-wall backup is costly, especially for something that isn't serving its primary purpose most of the time. And the products rarely have the capacity to run a typical American household very long, which necessitates extra work to figure out which appliances are critical and which can be left off.
Those constraints muddy the value proposition for stationary batteries. Ford proposed a cleaner one: Buy this new truck at the same price point you're used to, and you'll get market-leading battery backup for minimal extra cost. That's a formidable entrance into the home energy market.
How will Ford deliver backup power?
Simply buying the Lightning does not unlock backup power, however. That requires additional equipment to island the house from the broader grid (so no electricity flows out from wires and hurts a utility worker) and to allow two-way power flows (typical chargers only send electrons to the car).
Here's how Ford explains the process:
With Ford Intelligent Backup Power, enabled by the available 80-amp Ford Charge Station Pro and home management system Ford can help install, F-150 Lightning automatically kicks in to power your house. Once power is restored, the truck automatically reverts to charging its battery. Based on an average 30 [kilowatt-hours] of use per day, F-150 Lightning with extended-range battery provides full-home power for up to three days, or as long as 10 days if power is rationed, with results varying based on energy usage.
A spokesperson for Sunrun, Ford's preferred installer for the backup equipment, declined to comment on specific costs and components, saying that offer details will be announced in the coming months.
That leaves some open questions, such as what kind of energy management system Ford will use. There are systems on the market that provide granular control of which circuits are active during backup mode to allow homeowners to power down the hot tub while keeping lights, Wi-Fi and the refrigerator humming, for example. The low-tech alternative is paying an electrician to hard-wire specific critical loads to receive backup power.
Then again, the F-150 battery pack is so enormous that fine-tuning one's consumption becomes a nice-to-have feature, rather than a necessity. Ford is touting three days in a row of 30 kilowatt-hours — equivalent to the Energy Information Administration's calculation of the average daily consumption of a U.S. household. Backup lasts longer if the household uses less.
That's assuming 90 kilowatt-hours of storage capacity for backup. The Powerwall holds 13.5 kilowatt-hours, just like it did when the current iteration launched five years ago (Tesla's website affably suggests that you "stack up to 10 Powerwalls together to meet your needs"). Competing home battery companies offer similar capacity, though some scale up to a higher total: LG Energy Solution, sonnen, Enphase, Electriq, SimpliPhi Power, etc.
Those fallen chunks of wood are no match for the Lightning's hefty energy storage capacity. (Photo credit: Ford)
Is Ford's Lightning a threat to home battery companies?
The question for all the companies growing their battery businesses is whether the Lightning competes with or complements their efforts.
The number of prospective battery customers who may buy the truck instead of a residential battery is likely quite small. The overall population of battery customers remains diminutive, while the F-150 has been the bestselling truck in the country for 44 years.
Given that vast discrepancy in market reach, the backup battery industry may have more to gain from Ford customers than it stands to lose from competition with the Lightning.
"The fact that it has backup is a cool feature and will probably lay the breadcrumbs for customers to understand the energy world better," noted Zoheb Davar, director of business development and growth at electric transportation company The Mobility House.
It's particularly notable that Sunrun, which regularly touts its own home battery business to investors, chose to partner with Ford to install backup chargers. That move suggests the potential solar leads generated by Lightning customers outweigh any lost revenue on the battery backup side.
"More people looking at batteries is always good," said Aric Saunders, executive vice president of home battery company Electriq. Plus, he added, "Batteries are so much more than backup power."
Someone driving around by day wouldn't be able to store extra solar power in their truck; a stationary battery could hold onto it for charging the vehicle at night.
But non-backup uses for home batteries are geographically limited or less intuitive than keeping the lights on during a storm.
Using a battery to dodge expensive times for electricity consumption only pays off in places with time-based utility rates. Solar self-consumption makes sense where solar exports earn scant compensation. And models are emerging to use home batteries as distributed power plants and compensate homeowners for it — "but this application won’t impact the market at scale for at least a few years," WoodMac's Holden said.
As such, battery vendor marketing leans on backup as the key selling point. Now Ford is selling more powerful backup power at a better unit rate, and it can also do all the things a truck can do. That's a new standard of performance for home batteries to compete with.
But if you can't beat them, join them.
“You just don’t want to have a tank low on electrons to get out of Dodge when you need to get out,” said Julie Blunden, a former executive at fast-charging network provider EVgo and board member at New Energy Nexus. Stationary batteries for the home mean the truck can save its juice for driving in a prolonged outage.
What do electric F-150s mean for the energy transition?
Energy wonks get excited about the prospects for car batteries working in coordination with the grid to suck up surplus solar power and replace dirty power plants in high-demand moments. This concept goes by the name "vehicle-to-grid" or V2G. The idea is that a colossal amount of battery capacity will be rolling around in vehicles, so why not harness that for a cleaner, more efficient grid?
But few people outside of wonky circles even knows what V2G is or has reason to care. That's because opportunities to make money on it as an individual driver are scarce — and not particularly lucrative.
"It is the equivalent of handing out Starbucks gift certificates monthly," Blunden said.
The value of backup power is easier to communicate to anyone living in a place where the grid goes down. But Ford did flag its intentions to develop V2G offerings down the road:
In the future, Ford will introduce Ford Intelligent Power, which can use the truck to power homes during high-cost, peak-energy hours while taking advantage of low-cost overnight rates to charge the vehicle in time for your morning drive. This can help save money on electricity that powers your vehicle and home while also taking pressure off the grid in peak usage times.
That's catnip to grid futurists, some of whom may consider buying a truck for the first time to tap this newfound distributed energy potential.
But it may make more sense for commercial fleets, which have enough battery capacity to make things interesting and have business reasons to make the most of their vehicle investments. And commercial drivers are a key target audience for Ford's new battery on wheels.
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