Lucky drivers will get discount on Ford EV pickup for helping the grid

Some customers leasing Ford F-150 Lightning electric trucks will score lower monthly payments in exchange for sharing power with the grid at peak times, under a deal between Ford and Duke Energy.

A blue ford F-150 lightning EV truck in a parking lot
(John Tlumacki/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)
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A select group of drivers could soon knock a chunk off their lease payment for a hot new Ford F-150 Lightning — if they sign up for a smart-charging program with utility Duke Energy. It’s an early attempt at rewarding EV adopters for the value their mobile battery packs can offer to the electric grid. 

Discharging energy stored in the vehicle battery back to the grid can help utilities deliver electricity during hours of highest demand, avoiding more expensive and polluting power sources. That’s helpful for fighting climate change and keeping energy costs down. But unlocking those benefits requires someone to bridge the gap between drivers and systemwide grid operations, and to fine-tune the cost-benefit ratio on both sides of the equation. Duke wants to play that role for its customers.

This kind of arrangement has been hungrily anticipated by energy futurists, who call it V2G for vehicle-to-grid.” But doing it at scale requires a mass-market bidirectional” EV charger, which hasn’t been available in the U.S. Normal chargers only deliver power into a vehicle; bidirectional chargers can send it to or from the battery. When Ford unveiled its electric pickup last year, it savvily advertised the vehicle’s ability to deliver backup power to a home for days at a time — if customers worked with home energy company Sunrun to install the specialized charging equipment.

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In picking Sunrun, Ford partnered with the largest rooftop solar company in the U.S.; that demonstrated awareness of how electric vehicles intersect with visions for small-scale, decentralized energy. In the Duke Energy pairing, Ford recognizes how electric vehicles offer incumbent utilities a new tool for managing the broader interconnected grid for their customers.

Duke Energy and Ford share many mutual customers, so there’s opportunity for overlap when it comes to maximizing the value of new technology that our customers are adopting,” said Lon Huber, Duke’s senior vice president for pricing and customer solutions, in an email last Friday. By working together, we can reduce the price of the product for our customers as well as provide a needed benefit to the power grid.”

Specifically, the utility is asking North Carolina regulators to approve a 100-person pilot program to test the concept next year (a smaller test is slated for Duke’s Florida territory). Customers will be able to sign up as they’re finalizing their lease agreement at the Ford dealership; Duke will pay Ford directly to lower the monthly payment. 

Participants will get about $25 per month knocked off their lease payment for as long as they have it, Huber said. The dollar amounts are based on Duke’s calculations of the value that smart charging provides for the electrical system, he noted. Drivers can also earn bonus payments for regularly participating in peak events. 

In theory, this arrangement lets drivers get a cheaper EV without having to actually do anything. They come home, plug in the ride, and maybe Duke will tap into the power supply for a little bit. The rules only let Duke draw power from a vehicle up to three times a month in the summer and winter peak season, and once a month in off-peak seasons.

In practice, drivers may not be home and plugged in when Duke needs the burst of power. Or they may need to fill their batteries for an upcoming trip, forcing them to back out of participating. These are the sort of complexities that arise when utilities try to plan around resources that belong to individual customers who have their own lives to live (a coal plant never takes a break to go to the beach).

That’s why utilities like Duke need to start trying out the concept with real people, to see how they actually behave and what kind of rewards they need to stay engaged. 

We would consider it a successful pilot if we have high electric vehicle availability during events as well as a high number of happy pilot participants,” Huber said.

Huber added that he wasn’t aware of any previous utility efforts to enlist drivers at the point of purchase to export power for the benefit of the grid. Projects elsewhere have toggled charging times to avoid stressing the grid. And Northern California utility PG&E partnered on pilots with GM and Ford, but it just wants to test how the EV home-backup feature works, rather than try using the vehicles to meet broader grid demand.

Using cars as emissions-free home-backup generators could help millions of people in blackout-prone regions. But there’s a more transformative possibility in using vehicle batteries to help the overall grid: At scale, those rolling batteries could replace billions of dollars of pricey fossil-fueled peaker plants. Or they could help offset enormous investments in grid-scale battery plants to store renewable electricity.

Given the stakes, it’s well worth it to figure out vehicle-to-grid interactions before mass adoption of EVs begins in earnest.

Julian Spector is senior reporter at Canary Media.