Nissan Leaf as Home Generator: Great for Japan, But Will It Work in the U.S.?

Last Updated Aug 5, 2011 3:12 PM EDT

Nissan has developed a two-way charging system that turns its Leaf electric vehicle into a back up generator for your home. Leaf to Home, as it's called, is a well-timed and clever solution for post-nuclear disaster Japan -- the test site for the project. Its use overseas, especially in the U.S., will be a far tougher nut to crack.

To be clear, the idea of using an electric or hybrid car as a back-up generator for your home isn't new. Car geeks have rigged up their own systems for several years now. And vehicle-to-grid technology -- a system where EVs and plug-in hybrids can communicate with the power grid and deliver electricity when it's needed most -- has been pursued by numerous research institutions, start-ups and established companies like Google.

The Leaf to Home is smaller and less ambitious than V2G projects. And that's a good thing. Nissan has smartly focused on developing a system that addresses an immediate concern in Japan. The company told PC World it plans to commercialize the Leaf to Home system before April 2012.

How it works
Typically, owners would charge their Nissan Leaf cars overnight when electricity is cheap and plentiful. The Leaf to Home two-way charging system is designed to not only charge the vehicle, but also draw electricity from the car's lithium ion batteries and feeds it into the home.

The batteries in a Leaf can store up to 24 kilowatt hours of electricity. In Japan, that's enough to power an average-sized home for about two days. The system would be far less effective in the United States. The average U.S. household uses 908 kwh of electricity a month, according to U.S. Energy Information Administration. That's about 30 kwh a day. If the system were in place right now in say, blackout-riddled Texas, Leaf owners would be able to power their far less efficient homes for maybe a day.

Japan's energy woes
The triple disaster in Japan -- earthquake-tsunami-Fukushima nuclear -- has created an energy void in Japan. Before the disaster, power outages were relatively rare. That all changed in March after the tsunami exposed weaknesses at the Fukushima Daichi nuclear power plant, which triggered the largest nuclear accident since the Chernobyl disaster.

Japan, which gets about 29 percent of its electricity supply from nuclear power, has been put on a strict energy diet ever since. Rolling blackouts occurred and industries in certain areas of Japan were ordered to cut consumption by 15 percent.

Granted, Nissan Leafs won't solve Japan's power crisis. The Nissan has sold about 11,000 Leafs globally since introducing the car in December. About 5,500 of those units were sold in Japan. That can hardly be described as market saturation. But Leaf to Home does provide a temporary solution to the end user. That's powerful in a nation where citizens are deeply disappointed and disillusioned by the government and the utility's response to the nuclear disaster.

Japan's energy problem isn't going away anytime soon. Japan's decision to turn its back on nuclear power and ditch plans to build 14 more reactors will squeeze available electricity capacity until the government comes up with a viable alternative. Nissan has provided one small answer on its own.

Photo from Nissan
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