What’s better to drive in a hurricane—gas or electric?

In the wake of Hurricane Ian, we’re hearing the same old song from the anti-EV crowd: “Just think how it would be if everyone in Florida had an electric car—boy, would they be [in bad shape]!”

Above: A truck driving on a flooded road. Photo: Wade Austin Ellis / Unsplash

We’re not so sure about that. I just went through the process of evacuating, returning home, and helping friends with hurricane cleanup, and had a good opportunity to contemplate the pros and cons of driving electric in a disaster.

It’s true that power tends to go out in a hurricane, which on the face of it, sounds like a mark against EVs—if you can’t charge, you can’t go. But consider the usual sequence of events. Electrical power goes out after a ‘cane, whereas gas often becomes difficult or impossible to get before the event, and usually remains so for some time after. (Here in Tampa Bay, most of the gas pumps had been sucked dry by the time mandatory evacuation was called, and down in Lee County, where Ian actually hit, it’s still scarce as I write this, four days after the storm.)

For “getting out of Dodge” as the well-worn saying goes, an EV is likely to be a better bet. Even if you’re stuck in traffic on the way to the shelter, you won’t be much better off in a gas car. EVs don’t idle, so if you’re not moving, you’re not using energy, except to run the AC or heater.

So, you got out of Dodge, having dodged a bullet, and now you’re heading back home to clean up and help your neighbors who hunkered down. How you gonna charge?

Having lived through a dozen hits and near-misses from tropical storms and ‘canes, I can tell you that power outages tend to be local. Ian knocked out power for millions, but in most areas, it was restored pretty quickly. A couple of days after the debacle, electricity was restored in many parts of Venice and Northport, while Englewood was still dark. If an Englewood Tesla driver had enough juice to make it to the Supercharger in Venice, she could take a short drive and charge up—inconvenient, but no more so than gassing up, as the few stations that had gas boasted waits of half an hour or more.

Although any green driver would hate doing so, it’s perfectly feasible to charge an EV using a gas generator (just be careful that no EV-hating troll snaps a photo—it’ll be all over the internet within hours). So, if you have a generator, electricity to charge your EV is available as soon as gas is available.

ICE vehicles do have one advantage in the aftermath of a disaster—you can always store extra gas in cans, or even an auxiliary tank, so running out is less of a concern. On the other hand, an EV such as the Tesla Model X, the Hyundai Ioniq 5 or the Ford F-150 Lightning, is capable of towing a generator, which can be used to charge up your friends’ EVs.

Do you even need a generator? PlugOut Power offers an inverter that enables a Toyota or Lexus hybrid to output 4 kW of 120 V power to a home. The company claims it’s twice as efficient as a generator, and of course a car has a larger fuel tank and is much quieter.

What about using residential solar panels to charge your EV? Unfortunately, most grid-tied solar systems can’t be used for backup power (energy back-feeding into the grid could be dangerous for utility personnel working to repair downed lines). However, a home energy storage system such as a Tesla Powerwall can indeed be used for backup power, and possibly to charge your EV enough to make it to the nearest working charger.

Several companies offer mobile, off-grid chargers that can provide EV charging in the aftermath of a disaster. Some of these are designed to be towed, and some are meant to be loaded on a trailer or flatbed truck.

The EV ARC, made by Beam Global (formerly Envision Solar) is a semi-portable charging station with battery storage and solar panels—it can be carried on a truck and deployed in minutes. A similar solution is 3ti’s Papilio3, a solar+battery charger that’s built around a recycled shipping container, and is designed to be deployed within 24 hours. Other mobile charging solutions from Lightning eMotors and SparkCharge are designed to be mounted on a truck.

These are fairly new products, and we’re not aware that any have been deployed in Florida yet, but someday soon, portable energy storage units and EV chargers will be part of the response to future disasters. Noisy, stinky generators won’t be missed.

So, to answer the question posed in our headline, EVs would seem to be the winner when evacuating in the path of a hurricane, but gas vehicles do have a slight advantage when returning to the disaster zone to offer assistance (a high ground clearance also comes in handy, and that's something that's not yet available on any passenger EV that we're aware of).

However, that’s just considering equipment that’s widely available today. There’s a new technology in the pipeline that will make EVs invaluable assets in hurricanes or other disasters—bidirectional charging, which enables vehicle-to-home (V2H) applications, allowing an EV to be used as a source of backup power. The Ford F-150 Lightning and Hyundai Ioniq 5 offer bidirectional capability (the Nissan Leaf has always been bi-capable, to a more limited extent), and the feature is expected to be included in most new EVs within a couple of years.