Listen, I think you should be able to get rid of your car if you want to. It should be easy to get everywhere you need to go on fast, frequent, fare-free public transit or by using safe, shaded, separated road designs that prioritize the movement of people. The reality is that we will never achieve our climate goals — a net-zero economy by 2050 — unless we have fewer cars that drive fewer miles; just swapping every gas-powered vehicle with an electric one won’t be enough. But here’s another reality: One-third of all miles driven in this country are in rural areas. Billions of those miles are driven in trucks. Which is why, if you’re under 40, God bless you, Ford’s F-150 has been the country’s top-selling vehicle every year you’ve been alive. Of late, the company has sold nearly a million trucks annually. And just one week after Joe Biden took his dazzle-camouflaged lap around a Dearborn, Michigan, track, Ford has received 70,000 preorders for its first-ever all-electric F-150 Lightning. To give a sense of how absolutely game-changing that figure is, consider this: If Ford ends up shipping all those preorders, they would equal one-fourth of the total number of all EVs sold last year. So the F-150 Lightning is much more than just an electric version of a very popular car; it’s the first viable electric vehicle for a huge number of Americans. And it has another feature that may be a key to the coming zero-emissions revolution: an 1,800-pound battery that holds a charge for 300 miles as well as an intriguing and essential role in this country’s renewable-energy-storage future.
Although an array of flashy electric megavehicles have debuted recently, there’s a big difference between, say, the Tesla Cybertruck or the Hummer EV — both of which are niche, bordering on stunt, products — and the F-150, which has long since proven itself to be extremely useful. (Eight percent of the U.S. workforce uses an F-series truck daily, and Ford trucks and vans constitute 40 percent of the country’s commercial vehicles.) The F-150 Lightning is specifically designed for labor, including 11 outlets designed for plugging in power tools, a front-trunk storage area (“frunk”) under the hood, and a special model made for fleets. The F-150 Lightning also has exceptional emergency capabilities, as Camila Domonoske reports at NPR: “When it’s plugged in at home and the power goes out, the Lightning can automatically send electricity back into your home, keeping the lights on for days.” At the launch event, Ford CEO Jim Farley talked about how EV owners used their cars to heat their homes during the Texas ice storms, where grid collapse might have killed as many as 700 people. Ford has announced a partnership with industry leader Sunrun to provide an inverter — plus the option to install solar panels — allowing energy stored locally to flow back and forth from the car to the home. But the possibilities become broader for the F-150 with the installation of a bidirectional charger that allows energy to flow between the car and the home and also back onto the grid, what’s known as vehicle-to-grid (V2G) integration.
As states begin to gather renewable energy from a wider variety of sources, including more solar and wind, we’re going to need more batteries — a lot more batteries. “Let’s be real,” says Pamela MacDougall, senior manager of grid-modernization engineering and strategy for the Environmental Defense Fund. “The wind isn’t always blowing.” She points to California as an example: There, renewables power about one-third of the state’s grid overall but not consistently. There are major changes to demand and supply patterns during the day — known as the “duck curve” — owing to the variability of those sources. (But it’s improving all the time: For a few minutes last month, California’s main grid got 94.5 percent of its energy from renewable sources.) Soon the state will be producing much more renewable energy than it needs at once, and large batteries will be key to storing that energy to use another time. During those peaks, says MacDougall, the big battery of an F-150 is the ideal place to stash that excess. This goes one step beyond topping up your car with sunlight from your rooftop solar array. This means your plugged-in car becomes part of the grid’s storage system, using its smart-charging capabilities to slurp up energy at times of high production or low demand, then dump it back onto the grid as needed. “Now we’re finally able to tap this valuable resource,” MacDougall says. “This is a huge step in the right direction.”
While V2G is more common in European countries where EV adoption rates are much higher, there are some early-stage programs underway in California, says Danielle J. Harris, managing director of engagement and innovation at Elemental Excelerator: “The big challenge is getting a large vehicle that’s sitting dormant during high solar times with a substantial battery that’s being charged.” Here’s where local fleets become storage farms. California is testing a V2G program for its electric school buses, which are often not in use during the sunniest hours of the day. Harris’s team is also working with California state utility PG&E, which uses scheduled blackouts on its fragile grid as a wildfire-prevention strategy. A pilot program is looking at supplying V2G technology to a cohort of homeowners whose local batteries can be used as a distributed energy resource to balance the grid in emergencies but also ensures that the entire community will have access to power in case of an outage, plus a way to evacuate. “If we could get all of them EVs, then they could have both a reliable vehicle and a generator that they’d have access to,” says Harris. “We need to break down the wall between energy and mobility, and all utilities need to be in the transportation business.”
Some critics have raised concerns about putting a battery the size of the F-150’s into a moving vehicle. At a total of 6,500 pounds, this truck is much heavier, more dangerous to pedestrians, and hypothetically more destructive to roads than its gas-powered ancestor. Even though technology is quickly advancing and batteries are growing smaller all the time, says MacDougall, if we’re talking about protecting the health and safety of people living in cities, where urbanites are exposed to so many vehicles all the time and air pollution kills many more people each year than crashes, it should be a priority to electrify the heaviest-duty vehicles first. Similarly, focusing on electrifying vehicles used for work prioritizes benefits for people who rely on driving the most. MacDougall points to her parents, who are dairy farmers and use a truck and are considering going electric just because of the F-150 Lightning. “They don’t necessarily need more transit options — their main vehicle is their work vehicle,” she says. “This is enabling rural communities to have access to clean technology.”
Just because the F-150’s energy-storing capabilities are critical to decarbonizing the grid doesn’t mean every American should buy one just to keep it charged up in the garage. Manufacturing any new truck consumes a huge amount of energy, only some of which is recovered at the end of its lifespan. As companies including Ford move toward electrifying their SUV fleets — which are not as likely to be used for work — those heavier vehicles should be more heavily regulated, particularly in cities. Vehicles that have to navigate through crowded streets with lots of pedestrians should look less like the F-150 and more like the new USPS minivan. And access to all electric vehicles, particularly when it comes to charging, remains extremely inequitable. “We still haven’t fully addressed the multifamily residential situation,” says Harris. “We can’t say this is just a single-family-home solution.” But figuring out a way for people who need cars to share the renewable-energy load, while charging everything from electric buses to e-bikes, could be the key to powering a sustainable economy — and doing it right could transform society for the better. “There’s all this concern about everyone switching to EVs,” says Harris. “Let’s figure out the best way to harness this opportunity and get everyone to the table.”