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3 electric car myths that will leave you out in the cold

Posted by The NativeEnergy Team on Nov 30, 2010
Tags: green tips, electric cars

Even though the first electric vehicle (EV) was built in the 1830s, in the minds of many Americans, modern electric cars are nearly as fantastical as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. While we cheer the upcoming releases of the Nissan LEAF and other consumer-focused EVs, a lot of us still have questions about the practicality of all-electric cars. For those of us who live in the North, we can’t help but wonder: How do electric cars perform in cold weather?

We talked to expert Harold Garabedian, former research director of EVermont, to find out. Here is what we learned:

Concern 1: Battery performance may decrease markedly in cold temperatures, reducing the range of an EV in winter.

Reality: New engineering helps address cold weather performance issues.

Batteries tend to lose their charge when cold, which can result in a reduction of electric car driving range during the winter. Automakers have engineered several solutions to this problem.

First, the new lithium-ion batteries in electric cars perform better in the cold than conventional lead-acid car batteries. Second, many automakers are installing thermal systems, which optimize battery power and reduce loss of range. For example, the new Nissan LEAF, which will include a cold weather package option, will pre-heat the battery when it’s plugged in. Its thermal system will then retain the warmth from pre-heating and trap the heat generated by the battery during use. In contrast, the Ford Focus EV will use a liquid warming and cooling system.

By utilizing these thermal systems, both models will improve battery performance in harsh conditions, remaining closer to their optimal 100 mile ranges.

Concern 2: The cabins of electric cars may be cold in the winter.

Reality: Simple heaters can be used for a warm and efficient ride.

Gas-powered cars suffer from notably inefficient combustion, but there is a benefit to this inefficiency: The waste heat produced by the engine can be used to defrost windshields and heat cars. Since electric cars are up to three times more efficient than gas-powered cars, almost no heat is generated by the engine during use. Thus electric car engineers must find other ways to heat the cabin.

In his research, Harold determined that the most efficient way to heat an electric car is to install a hydronic kerosene heater. While it uses a small amount of fossil fuel, heating an electric car with kerosene is actually more efficient than using the battery (for now, at least). In keeping with these findings, the Volvo C30 EV will use an ethanol-powered heater to warm the cabin. By contrast, the Nissan LEAF will heat the cabin by battery; however, it does offer a pre-heat option to reduce battery drain.

Concern 3: Electric cars may be inconvenient for people in colder climates.

Reality: Electric cars can be convenient in some surprising ways.

You know those mornings when there’s frost outside and inside your car? It’s not fun to wait for your car to heat up during your commute. One of the cool things about electric cars is that their energy can be controlled more easily than fossil fuels. Case in point: You can pre-heat your car without running the engine.

As for other types of convenience, perhaps you shouldn’t think of an all-electric vehicle as merely another car, but as a different—and superior—tool altogether for the frequent short trips that most people make in their cars. No, it’s not ideal for a four-hour drive to a family holiday gathering, but harnessing more than 100 horses fueled by imported petroleum may not be the ideal way to commute 15 miles to your daily work. (Want an electric drivetrain hybrid that can charge its battery while driving? Check out the Chevy Volt.)

Of course, what’s the ultimate convenience? How about reducing the effects of climate change—something that will make all our lives decidedly uncomfortable? Even though electric cars sometimes use electricity generated by fossil fuel-fired power plants, as more and more renewable energy projects are developed, electric cars will undeniably emit less CO2 than gas-powered ones. So if you’re in the market for a new car, you might want to wait for one of these affordable, consumer-focused electric vehicles. You’ll stay warm without warming up the earth.

Special thanks to Harold Garabedian for his expertise on this topic.

LEARN MORE:
Top 10 Electric Car Makers for 2010 and 2011
Electric car FAQs

 

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