Owners of battery-powered cars face challenges like battery-charging times and running out of juice on the highway. But here’s another problem that potential buyers may not have considered: What happens when the electricity goes out?
When strong winds hit Metro Detroit on March 8 and knocked out power to about 1 million DTE Energy and Consumers Energy customers at home or work, owners of electric cars scrambled to recharge their Teslas, Volts and Leafs. While it’s not as simple as topping off a cellphone at a coffee shop, most owners of electric vehicles managed.
“I had access to public charging while the power was out,” said Stanley Rivers, a plug-in Chevy Volt owner who commutes to Dearborn from Detroit. “Dearborn has good charging stations: three at the Dearborn Transit Center, one in west Dearborn and six in east Dearborn.”
With battery-powered car sales numbering some 400,000 a year in the U.S. (more than 2 percent of sales), an infrastructure is taking shape that includes public-utility and private enterprise-provided charging stations, dealerships, Tesla-installed superchargers — not to mention wall sockets at home and work.
“Our power went out, but our home generator is powered by natural gas and kicked on automatically,” said Grosse Pointe Farm’s Sean Maloney, who owns a Tesla Model S. “No issues after that.”
The Motor City might more accurately be called “The Engine City”: cars with electric motors are nowhere near as popular as in California and the Northeast. Even though the first all-electric car under $40,000 to promise more than 200 miles per charge — the Chevrolet Bolt — is assembled in Orion Township north of Detroit, Michigan dealers have not yet received Bolts. The first Bolts were delivered to dealers in California and Oregon late last year, and dealers there and in eastern states like New York, Massachusetts and Virginia take priority.
Electrics are “a California thing,” a spokesperson for one area Chevy dealer said when contacted about local interest. Other all-electric vehicles like the Nissan Leaf have sold poorly here. A spokesman for Suburban Nissan in Troy says the dealership moves just one or two a year.
The most prominent EVs in Detroit are all-electric Teslas and plug-in Volts, which sport a gas engine that takes over when the battery loses charge. With an electric-only range of 35-50 miles, however, many Volt owners take pride in never visiting a gas station.
“My home in Plymouth was without power for 48 hours, but my office in Novi never lost power,” said Volt owner Nate Dort. “I charge there for free — and usually do daily — so my charging routine didn’t really change.”
Dort echoes Leaf owner Cari Meabrod Sinke of Hartland, who said she has plenty of charging options: “If I had lost power, I would have used my generator to charge — or work or hit my dealership on my way to work.”
But for Volt owners like Joe Lopez of Detroit, the plug-in’s battery/gas duality is tailor-made for blackout Armageddon: “The beauty of having a Volt is you have the gasoline backup.”
Gas-station pumps are also vulnerable to power blackouts. But the service station infrastructure is so ubiquitous that fuel providers like Barrick Enterprises reported minor inconvenience for customers.
“About 10 percent of our customers lost power for an extended period,” said founder Bob Barrick, whose company delivers fuel to some 200 gas stations in the Detroit area. “For those without, it was a tough week. I had one customer without power in Highland Park and another with power just across Woodward Avenue. He doubled his sales.”
Jeff Sturm of Taylor is looking at a home-based solar panels to deal with emergencies.
“I’d like to cover my garage with panels but have not decided if I want grid-tied or off-grid,” said Sturm. “The latter would give me enough power to charge my car on many days, but would need battery storage to be useful.”
Connie Howe of St. Clair Shores, who winters in Fort Myers, Florida, was out of town during the power outages, but was still concerned about her Tesla Model S.
“I have a Tesla plugged into the 110 wall-socket in Michigan,” she said. “I just call up my Tesla app to make sure it’s still fully charged.”
Henry Payne is auto critic for The Detroit News. Find him at firstname.lastname@example.org or Twitter @HenryEPayne.