Nissan Motor Co. and Mitsubishi Motors Corp. say their electric cars can be used for more than just going to the grocery store. Soon, the battery-powered vehicles may also help owners cook dinner during a blackout.
Mitsubishi is working to increase the 100-watt discharge capacity of its i-MiEV electric car, which can already power small gadgets such as mobile phones with the use of an optional accessory, to 1,500 watts. At that level, “you’d be able to power a rice cooker or a microwave,” said Yoshikazu Nakamura, head of the company’s electric-vehicle business.
The electricity shortage that caused rolling blackouts in Tokyo after an earthquake knocked out nuclear reactors in March is highlighting the usefulness of electric-car batteries as backup power sources, according to Nissan and Mitsubishi, the world’s two biggest makers of such vehicles. Rather than dent demand, the disaster may boost electric-car sales, said Takeshi Miyao, an analyst at consulting company Carnorama in Tokyo.
“Electric cars now have the chance to demonstrate how useful their batteries can be,” Miyao said. “Electric vehicles have an advantage, more than ever.”
Tokyo Electric Power Co. has said electricity shortages this summer may lead to further scheduled outages after the March 11 earthquake crippled its Fukushima Dai-Ichi atomic power plant, causing the world’s worst nuclear accident in 25 years. Other reactors in Japan have also been halted for inspections and maintenance, exacerbating a national power shortage.
Even so, energy use at night, when electric-car owners typically charge their vehicles, only reaches about 50 percent of available supply, according to the utility.
“Charging electric vehicles during the night shouldn’t be a problem at all,” Miyao said. “What’s necessary is to cut back during peak times.”
Using the car’s battery to run appliances is done with a foot-long device that Mitsubishi sells for an extra 15,540 yen ($200). It plugs into a socket in the i-MiEv’s interior and converts the battery’s direct current into alternating current for the appliances, which plug into the other side.
Mitsubishi has intensified battery-development efforts since the March disaster, Nakamura said. The Tokyo-based company aims to introduce a battery that can discharge as much as 1,500 watts by the end of this year, he said.
“We noticed a shift in the public’s focus, and we are speeding things up,” Nakamura said.
Nissan plans to unveil a discharge system for its Leaf electric car early next month, said Hideaki Watanabe, the Yokohama-based company’s head of zero-emission vehicles. While the car’s battery has a capacity of 2,400 watts, Nissan has yet to decide on its discharge capacity, said Shiro Nagai, a spokesman at the carmaker.
While Japan’s overall auto sales have declined after the earthquake, orders for the Leaf have held steady, said Nagai.
Sales of the model in Japan, which fell in March and April amid output disruptions caused by the disaster, rebounded in May to 472 vehicles from 177 the previous month, Nagai said. Nissan had sold about 8,200 Leafs globally as of mid-June, after introducing the car in December, Watanabe said.
“Even though we had to halt production after the quake, sales are going well,” Nagai said.
Toyota Motor Corp., the world’s biggest maker of gasoline-electric hybrid vehicles, is also introducing a system that will enable its Prius hybrid car to discharge as much as 1,500 watts, enough to power home appliances. Toyota said July 19 the system will be available within a year.
For now, the technology may be of limited use to people living in high-rise apartment buildings, who have no way to connect their cars to their kitchen appliances.
“Right now, it’s impossible,” said Toshitake Inoshita, a spokesman at Nissan. “The infrastructure to carry that electricity up to a room on the 12th floor needs to be developed first.”
The technology isn’t meant for regular use in homes just yet, said Kai Inada, a spokesman at Mitsubishi.
“We only have plans for the electricity to be used in emergency situations, or for people going camping,” he said.
Mitsubishi’s i-MiEV, which went on sale in April 2010, uses a battery supplied by Lithium Energy Japan, a joint venture between Mitsubishi and battery maker GS Yuasa Corp. The battery can be fully charged in seven to 14 hours and can power the vehicle for 160 kilometers (99 miles), according to the company.
Mitsubishi says it has sold about 4,000 i-MiEVs in Japan and exported more than 10,000, including vehicles supplied to French carmaker PSA Peugeot Citroen. The Japanese company plans to add eight hybrid and battery-powered models by 2015, beginning with its M model, set to go on sale July 25.
Nissan plans to introduce a total of seven electric models in addition to the Leaf in the six years to fiscal 2016. It is targeting sales of 1.5 million electric vehicles over the next six years along with its French partner, Renault SA.
In addition to serving as an emergency power source, electric vehicles can help conserve energy during peak demand times, Nissan’s Watanabe said.
“They can store energy during the night, when demand is low, and that stored energy can be used at peak time,” Watanabe said. “The battery’s ability to store power adds value to the car even when it’s not running.”
The Leaf’s lithium-ion batteries, supplied by battery maker Automotive Energy Supply Corp., a venture between Nissan and NEC Corp., take about eight hours to be fully charged to 24 kilowatt hours. A full charge can power the car for an estimated 200 kilometers, according to Nissan.
The company plans to begin making batteries for the Leaf in Smyrna, Tennessee, and Sunderland, England, next year. It will start making them in Portugal in 2013 and also plans production in France. Nissan aims to make 500,000 batteries a year by 2015.
“The Leaf already has the capacity to supply all the electricity you need for a regular household for two days,” Watanabe said. “Customers can expect more than that in the new cars to come.”