(Bloomberg) — Spend an afternoon driving a Ford F-150 Lightning around the vineyards and redwood-shaded back roads of California’s wine country and the pickup’s big power will be evident. What makes the electric version of America’s best-selling car a potential game-changer, though, isn’t its acceleration (zero to 60 mph in 4.3 seconds) or its range (up to 320 miles when charged). Instead, it’s technology that harnesses the Lightning battery pack to power your home or the electrical network itself during frequent climate-related blackouts.
The Lightning’s long-range, 131-kWh package has a lithium-ion capacity about 10 times that of the Tesla Powerwall, a $11,000 home backup battery that can’t be taken to the supermarket. Lightning is a “mini-power plant for your home,” says Jason Glickman, executive vice president of engineering, planning and strategy at California utilities company PG&E Corp. “It can support the network on a hot summer’s day, when we have a great demand.”
Adds Glickman, whose utility is testing how the truck is integrated into its management of the network.
He’s speaking through the back door of Lightning, one of three parked on a hill overlooking the vineyards at Dutton Ranch in Sebastopol, along with a senior Ford executive and president of Sonoma County Winegrowers, an association of 1,800 farmers who promote sustainable farming. Ford organized the event earlier this month to showcase a pilot program that equips Dutton Ranch and other local farmers with pickups and vans as part of a service called Ford Pro that helps companies manage their fleets.
Lightning is the first electric vehicle to be sold in the United States with bi-directional charging capability that has been enabled to power homes and the grid. On this day, Ford has yet to deliver electric trucks to grape growers—it has a backlog of 200,000 orders. (A week later, the company delivered the first Lightning to a Michigan customer.) But the family-owned farm’s embrace of a 21st-century rural electrification initiative points to the possibilities of turning battery-powered pickups into vehicles to decarbonize the economy and build resilience against climate change.
Speaking via a Lightning-connected audio system, Carissa Cruz, president of Sonoma County Wingers, said that at first, “farmers were skeptical and there wasn’t much enthusiasm for using electricity, especially in their trucks. Now they’re like, ‘Can I participate in the program? demo? I heard you can bring us a truck.”
Some time with lightning explains why. While electric vehicles are often referred to as batteries on wheels, Lightning is best described as a mobile power sector. The Lightning I extended range test featured a 240-volt outlet in the trunk of the truck that could power heavy machinery from 9.6 kilowatts of carbon-free electricity generated on board. There are also two 120-volt outlets in the cabin, four in the bed and four more in the cavernous front trunk that Ford calls the “Mega Power Frunk.”
Says Steve Dutton, a fifth-generation farmer and co-owner of Dutton Ranch, which is powered in part by solar array power. “When we get the trucks up and running, we’ll see more and more opportunities where we can use that electrical power for equipment in the field.”
The pickup’s ability to keep Dutton employees’ lights on is especially good in a place like California, where wildfires and heat waves have caused seasonal blackouts in recent years. “If there’s a power outage and the truck is parked in one of my boys’ homes, and he can run the house off the battery, that’s great,” says Dutton, who is married to Cruz.
Converting the Lightning into a home generator requires an 80-amp Ford charging station and $3,895 home integration system from Sunrun Inc. The installation cost of the Sunrun system varies according to the home and location. The charging station comes with the extended version of Lightning; It’s a $1,310 option for buyers of the standard version that has a 230-mile range of the pickup truck.
If Lightning is plugged in when a power outage occurs, the house will automatically start drawing electricity from the battery. When power is restored, the system disconnects and then resumes charging the vehicle. Ford says Lightning can power an entire average home for about three days.
“It’s a home like mine with AC, Xbox, kids going crazy and letting the lights on everywhere,” Linda Zhang, chief engineer for the F-150 Lightning, told Bloomberg Green. With more frugal use, Lightning can keep the house running for up to 10 days, she says.
Zhang, who has the backup system installed in her home, says half of Lightning’s retail bookings are from people who have never owned a truck. “This new customer for trucks is really brought on, in my opinion, by Mega Power Frunk and Pro Power Onboard,” she says. “And some people are really interested in this product as a backup generator.”
She declined to say whether future Ford electric cars would feature bi-directional capability.
Whether the technology helps speed electricity depends on how it performs in everyday life, according to Depparia Chakraborty, a UC Davis researcher at the Institute for Transportation Studies.
“If you need to travel during a power outage, there are some limitations,” says Chakraborty, who studies consumer attitudes toward electric vehicles. “If you’re charging with solar energy, you can use battery power to power any device most likely in the evening, when electricity rates are higher.”
The pickup version targeting commercial fleets, called the Lightning Pro, is priced at $39,974 before state and federal cuts and tax credits. With such incentives, the price is comparable to the base gasoline model F-150. From there, the Lightning could veer into “Cadillac Cowboy” territory, with increasingly luxury models edging out the $90,874 Platinum Edition.
Ford brought more than a dozen trucks to Sonoma for a media test drive, and spent an hour piloting a $77,000 “ice blue” Lightning Lariat around the narrow winding roads of the Russian River Valley, in a quiet cabin. The 6,600-pound pickup truck was treated like a much smaller vehicle, and I can confirm that Joe Biden wasn’t exaggerating when he said “quick that sucker” after last year’s lap.
Being not a truck, I needed a reality check. So I forwarded my impressions of the Lightning to my friend John, a craftsman who drives a 1990 F-150 and is the kind of traditional customer Ford needs to electrify. “I want one!” wrote again. “$40K – but I just filled up my old truck to the tune of $140. I gotta get my name on the list.”
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