Electric Cars Can’t Take the Cold

Batteries generate power less efficiently as temperatures drop.

Illustration: 731

California’s mandatory sales targets for electric and hydrogen-powered cars will go from less than 1 percent today to more than 15 percent by 2025. The targets, the result of legislation passed in 2003, are a means of cutting greenhouse gas emissions to 80 percent below 1990 levels by 2050.

The same targets will go into effect in nine other states that have chosen to adopt California’s emissions-reduction standards rather than follow laxer federal rules: Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont. “Electrification is a needed part of the solution,” says Matt Solomon, transportation director of Northeast States for Coordinated Air Use Management, a nonprofit consortium representing the air quality agencies of eight states.

The trouble is, except for Oregon, none of the states have California’s temperate weather. The batteries used by the greener cars generate electricity from chemical reactions that work less efficiently as temperatures drop. In tests conducted by the American Automobile Association, an electric car that ran for 105 miles at 75F went only 43 miles at 20F—a 60 percent reduction in range.

That’s causing anxiety in places such as Maine, a mostly rural state where people drive long distances for work, shopping, and recreation. “People said don’t worry about it,” says Tom Brown, president of the Maine Automobile Dealers Association of the battery range problem. But, he says, “California is not Maine. They’ve got more people in five city blocks than we do in the whole state.”

In California, which leads the U.S. in sales of zero-emissions vehicles, automakers are on track to meet the mandatory sales targets, which are backed up with fines of $5,000 for every car below quota. Three types of cars on the road today meet the zero-emissions standard: electric-only vehicles such as the Nissan Leaf or Teslas, hybrids such as the Chevrolet Volt that switch between electric and gas power, and hydrogen fuel-cell cars such as the Toyota Mirai. (Tesla, which only sells electric cars, has built a side business selling quota credits to other automakers that haven’t yet brought zero-emissions models to market.)

Sales in the nine states that have adopted the same emissions-reduction targets haven’t kept up and lag behind those in the South, where the weather is better for batteries. “The challenge you face with technology-forcing mandates is picking winners and losers,” says John Bozzella, president and chief executive officer of the Association of Global Automakers. “There are distinct and different challenges in the Northeast.” Bozzella’s group and the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers succeeded in defeating a 2014 attempt by New Hampshire lawmakers to join the rest of New England in adopting the California standards.

Officials are counting on improved batteries to overcome the weather problem. “The longer the range [and] the better the batteries are, the less there’s an issue,” says Solomon of the Northeast air quality consortium. Tesla, whose electric cars are the most expensive, has introduced models with ranges of up to 200 miles and is promising cheaper models as early as 2016. General Motors says it expects to achieve a similar range with Volts next year. “Two hundred miles will be a game changer,” says Roland Hwang, director of the Natural Resources Defense Council’s energy and transportation program.

The states following California’s lead have pledged to step up construction of charging stations, which would help alleviate the threat of drivers getting stranded with dead batteries. None appear to have any interest in easing up on automakers by relaxing the electric vehicle sales targets, says Peter Iwanowicz, a New York-based environmental lobbyist. “If you have these goals, and that’s what the science tells us you have to do,” he says, “you need to get moving today.”

The bottom line: Nine states have adopted California’s targets for electric car sales, even though the batteries don’t work well in the cold.

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