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Electric Vehicles Used as Power Sources during Disasters in Japan

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Supplying electricity from a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle to home appliances is demonstrated at Kawasaki City Hall in November.

There is a growing trend of using electric vehicles, including hybrids, as a power source in the event of a power outage due to a disaster. More and more automakers and local governments are signing agreements to dispatch electric vehicles in the event of a disaster, with a six-fold increase of such agreements in the past year.

“That is so convenient,” a visitor to Kawasaki City Hall on Nov. 19 said after watching an electric kettle connected to a car begin emitting steam. A rice ball was also heated in a microwave connected to the car.

The car used is a plug-in hybrid vehicle (PHV) powered by both gasoline and electricity, and it can be recharged at home. The microwave and other appliances were connected to two electrical outlets in the car with extension cords.

One of these vehicles can supply enough electricity to power the average household for up to 10 days, and its four-wheel drive makes it easy to use in disaster areas. In the aftermath of the torrential rains in Kyushu in July this year, Mitsubishi Motors Corp. dispatched three of these vehicles to Hitoyoshi in Kumamoto Prefecture, where they powered electric cutters used at disaster sites.

Kawasaki City signed an agreement to dispatch electric vehicles from Mitsubishi in the event of a disaster and then publicly demonstrated on the same day what the cars can do. The vehicles will be used to power evacuation centers and other facilities in the event of a disaster.

The city suffered flooding and power outages from Typhoon No. 19 last October.

“It will give citizens a sense of security,” a city official said.

Efforts to use electric vehicles as a power source in disaster areas began to gain attention after the Great East Japan Earthquake in March 2011.

Right after Typhoon No. 15 hit in September last year — which caused massive power outages mainly in Chiba Prefecture — Nissan Motor Co. dispatched more than 50 electric vehicles to Kisarazu and other areas, where they were used to charge smartphones and power home appliances at senior citizen facilities.

“Seeing the joy of the children listening to music on a music player point to me that we were making contributions,” said a regional business development manager who delivered the electric vehicles to a daycare.

In the aftermath of Typhoon No. 15, there has been an increase in dispatch agreements between automobile manufacturers and dealers and local governments. There were 48 such agreements signed by Toyota Motor Corp., Nissan, Mitsubishi, and Honda Motor Co. (including their affiliates) as of September last year, and the figure has increased to more than 280 agreements as of December. Dispatching such vehicles is also good promotion of their products and corporate image, and Mitsubishi plans to sign an agreement with at least one municipality in every prefecture by fiscal 2022, creating a system that will cover the entire nation.

As of the end of March this year, 10.94 million electric and hybrid vehicles were owned in Japan, according to the Next Generation Vehicle Promotion Center.

Although they have become a part of our daily lives, there are still many users who do not know how to use them as a power source. There were cases during Typhoon No. 15 where households suffering from power outages owned electric vehicles but did not know how to use them, according to a manufacturer that dispatched electric and hybrid vehicles to Chiba Prefecture after the typhoon.

Even when manufacturers delivered the vehicles to municipalities following the typhoon, the municipalities did not know where the vehicles were needed.

Thus, the Land, Infrastructure and Transportation Ministry prepared a manual for general users and local governments in July. In the next fiscal year, the ministry plans to establish a system to connect the sales companies of manufacturers that can dispatch such vehicles with local governments that need them.

■ Ministry manual

The ministry has prepared a manual for how to use the cars as a power source, which includes various points of caution.

The most important thing is to park the car on a flat surface with enough space to prevent it from moving while in use. The car should always be in park with a parking brake applied.

Hybrid and plug-in hybrid vehicles automatically start their engines to recharge the battery when the charge is low. The car must not be used in poorly ventilated areas to prevent exhaust fumes from filling the car.

Because of the possibility of heat generation, putting too many plugs in one outlet is strictly prohibited. Depending on the condition of the vehicle, the output may be interrupted and thus should not be used for medical equipment.

If your car does not have a household power outlet, you will need to install a converter (sold separately) in your car.