By Todd Woody | Bloomberg
Spend an afternoon driving the Ford F-150 Lightning around the vineyards and redwood-shaded back roads of California wine country and the pickup’s considerable power is apparent. What makes the electric version of America’s best-selling vehicle a potential game-changer, though, is not its acceleration (zero to 60 miles per hour in 4.3 seconds) or its range (up to 320 miles on a charge). Rather it’s the technology that taps the Lightning’s battery pack to power your home or the electric grid itself during increasingly frequent climate-driven blackouts.
The extended-range Lightning’s 131 kilowatt-hour lithium-ion pack boasts almost 10 times the capacity of a Tesla Powerwall, an $11,000 home backup battery that can’t be driven to the supermarket. The Lightning is “a mini powerplant for your home,” says Jason Glickman, executive vice president for engineering, planning and strategy at California utility PG&E Corp. “It can support the grid on a hot summer day, when we have demand spiking.”
“At scale, when these vehicles are enabled to send energy back to the grid, flex alerts and notices of grid emergencies will be a thing completely of the past,” adds Glickman, whose utility is testing how to integrate the truck into its management of the grid.
He’s speaking from the tailgate of a Lightning, one of three parked on a hill overlooking vineyards at Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol, along with a top Ford executive and the president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, an association of 1,800 farmers that promotes sustainable agriculture. Ford staged the event earlier this month to showcase a pilot program that’s supplying Dutton Ranch and two other local farms with electric pickups and vans as part of a service called Ford Pro that helps businesses manage their vehicle fleets.
The Lightning is the first EV sold in the US with bi-directional charging capability enabled to supply electricity back to homes and the grid. On this day, Ford had not yet handed over electric trucks to the grape growers — it has a backlog of some 200,000 orders. (A week later, the company delivered the first Lightning to a customer in Michigan.) But the family-owned farms’ embrace of this 21st century rural electrification initiative indicates the prospects for transforming battery-powered pickups into vehicles to decarbonize the economy and build resilience against climate change.
Sonoma County Winegrowers president Karissa Kruse, speaking over a sound system plugged into a Lightning, says that at first, “growers were skeptical and there wasn’t a lot of enthusiasm for going electric, especially in their trucks. Now they’re like, ‘Can I get in on the pilot program? I heard you could get us a truck.’”
Some time with the Lightning shows why. While electric vehicles are often referred to as batteries on wheels, the Lightning might be better described as a mobile power strip. The extended-range Lightning I test drove featured a 240-volt outlet in the truck bed that can power heavy-duty machinery from 9.6 kilowatts of carbon-free electricity generated onboard. There are also two 120-volt outlets in the cab, four in the bed and another four in the cavernous front trunk that Ford calls a “Mega Power Frunk.”
“The real value right off the bat is the gas savings, as California gas prices are out-of-sight,” says Steve Dutton, a fifth-generation farmer and co-owner of Dutton Ranch, which is powered in part by a solar array. “As we get the trucks and put them into service, we’re going see more and more opportunities where we can use that electric power for equipment out in the field.”
The pickup’s ability to keep Dutton’s employees’ lights on is particularly attractive in a place like California, where wildfires and heat waves have triggered seasonal blackouts in recent years. “If there’s a power outage and the truck is parked at one of my boys’ houses, and he can run the house off the battery, that’s awesome,” says Dutton, who is married to Kruse.
Transforming a Lightning into a home generator requires Ford’s 80-amp charging station and a $3,895 home integration system from Sunrun Inc. Installation cost for the Sunrun system varies according to the home and location. The charging station comes with the extended-range version of the Lightning; it’s a $1,310 option for buyers of the standard 230 mile-range version of the pickup.
If the Lightning is plugged in when a blackout hits, the home automatically begins drawing electricity from the battery. When power is restored, the system disconnects and then resumes charging the vehicle. Ford says the Lightning can fully power an average home for roughly three days.
“That’s a house like my house with AC, Xbox, kids going crazy leaving lights on everywhere,” Linda Zhang, chief engineer of the F-150 Lightning, tells Bloomberg Green. With more frugal use, the Lightning could keep a home running for up to 10 days, she says.
Zhang, who has the backup system installed at her home, says half of retail reservations for the Lightning are from people who have never owned a truck. “That new customer to trucks is really being brought in, in my mind, by the Mega Power Frunk and by the Pro Power Onboard,” she says. “And some people are just truly, really interested in this product as a backup generator.”
She declined to say whether future Ford electric vehicles will feature bi-directional capability.
Whether the technology helps speed electrification depends on how it will perform in day-to-day life, according to Debapriya Chakraborty, a researcher at the University of California at Davis Institute of Transportation Studies.
“If you need to travel during a power outage, there are some limitations,” says Chakraborty, who studies consumer attitudes toward EVs. “If you’re charging on solar, then you can use the battery power to probably run any machine in the evening, when electricity rates are higher.”
The version of the pickup aimed at commercial fleets, called the Lightning Pro, has a starting price of $39,974 before state and federal rebates and tax credits. With those incentives, the price is comparable with the base F-150 gasoline model. From there, the Lightning can veer into “cowboy Cadillac” territory, with increasingly luxe models that top out with the $90,874 Platinum edition.
Ford brought more than a dozen trucks to Sonoma for media test drives, and I spent an hour piloting a $77,000 “iced blue silver” Lightning Lariat around the Russian River Valley’s narrow winding roads, cocooned in a whisper-quiet cabin. The 6,600-pound pickup handled like a much smaller vehicle, and I can confirm Joe Biden wasn’t exaggerating when he said “this sucker’s quick” after a lap last year.
Not being a truck person, I needed a reality check. So I texted my impressions of the Lightning to my friend John, a craftsman who drives a 1990 F-150 and is the type of traditional customer Ford needs to electrify. “I want one!” he wrote back. “$40K — but I just filled the old truck to the tune of $140. I should get my name on the list.”
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