Tom Krisher And Mark Thiessen, The Associated Press – | Stories: 414415

Alaska’s rugged and frigid interior, where it can get as cold as -46 C, is not the place you’d expect to find an electric school bus.

But here is Bus No. 50, with a cartoon horse decal on its side, quietly traversing about 40 miles of snowy and icy roads each day in Tok, shuttling students to school not far from the Canadian border.

It works OK on the daily route. But cold temperatures rob electric vehicle batteries of traveling range, so No. 50 can’t go on longer field trips, or to Anchorage or Fairbanks.

It’s a problem that some owners of electric passenger vehicles and transit officials are finding in cold climates worldwide. At -7 C, electric vehicles just don’t go as far as they do at the ideal 21 C. Part of that is keeping passengers warm using traditional technology drains the battery.

So longer trips can be difficult in the coldest weather. Transit authorities like Chicago’s, which has pledged to convert its entire bus fleet to electricity by 2040, have to take extraordinary steps to keep electric buses charged and on schedule.

Some automakers and drivers fear lower battery range in the cold could limit the acceptance of electric cars, trucks and buses, at a time when emissions from transportation must go down sharply to address climate change. There is hope. Scientists are racing to perfect new battery chemistry that doesn’t lose as much energy in cold weather as today’s lithium-ion systems.

Also, cars equipped with efficient heat pumps don’t lose as much range in the cold.

“It is a problem to have batteries in cold weather, and we have a pretty cold climate, one of the coldest in North America,” said Stretch Blackard, owner of Tok Transportation, which contracts with the local schools.

When the temperature hits zero, his cost to run Tok’s electric bus doubles. Tok has among the highest electricity prices in the nation.

In the coldest weather, -18 to -23 C, the electric bus costs roughly $1.15 per mile, versus 40 cents per mile for a diesel bus, Blackard said. The cost of the electric bus drops to about 90 cents a mile when it’s warm, but he says the costs make it unworkable and he wouldn’t buy another one.

Many owners of personal electric vehicles are also finding that long-distance wintertime travel can be hard. EVs can lose anywhere from 10% to 36% of their range as cold spells come at least a few times each winter in many US states.

Mark Gendregske of Alger, Michigan, said it starts to get serious when temperatures drop to the -7 to -12 C range.

“I see typically more than 20% degradation in range as well as charging time,” he said while recharging his Kia EV6 in a shopping center parking lot near Ypsilanti, Michigan. “I went from about 250 miles of range to about 200.”

Gendregske, an engineer for an auto parts maker, knew the range would drop, so he said with planning, the Kia EV still gets him where he needs to go, even with a long commute.

Some owners, though, didn’t anticipate such a big decline in the winter. Rushit Bhimani, who lives in a northern suburb of Detroit, said he sees about 30% lower range in his Tesla Model Y when the weather gets cold, from what’s supposed to be 330 miles per charge to as low as 230. “They should clarify that one,” he said while charging just south of Ann Arbor on a trip to Chicago.

Around three-quarters of this EV range loss is due to keeping occupants warm, but speed and even freeway driving are factors. Some drivers go to great lengths not to use much heat so they can travel farther, wearing gloves or sitting on heated seats to save energy.

And to be sure, gasoline engines can also lose around 15% of their range in the cold.

The range loss has not slowed down EV adoption in Norway, where nearly 80% of new vehicle sales were electric last year.

Recent tests by the Norwegian Automobile Federation found models really vary. The relatively affordable Maxus Euniq6 came the closest to its advertised range and was named the winner. It finished only about 10% short of its advertised 354 km range. The Tesla S was about 16% percent under its advertised range. At the bottom: Toyota’s BZ4X, which topped out at only 323 kilometers, nearly 36% below its advertised range.

Nils Soedal, from the Automobile Federation, calls the issue “unproblematic” as long as drivers take it into account when planning a trip. “The big issue really is to get enough charging stations along the road,” and better information on whether they’re working properly, he said.

Temperatures ranged from just freezing to -19 C during the test, over mountains and along snow-covered roads. The cars were driven until they ran out of juice and stopped.

Recurrently, a US company that measures battery life in used EVs, said it has run studies monitoring 7,000 vehicles remotely, and reached findings similar to the Norwegian test.

CEO Scott Case said many EVs use resistance heating for the interior. The ones that do better are using heat pumps.

Heat pumps draw heat from the outside air even in cold temperatures, and have been around for decades, but only recently have been developed for automobiles, Case said. “That is definitely what needs to be in all of these cars,” he said.

Inside the battery, lithium ions flow through a liquid electrolyte, producing electricity. But they travel more slowly through the electrolyte when it gets cold and don’t release as much energy. The same happens in reverse, slowing down charging.

Neil Dasgupta, associate professor of mechanical and materials science engineering at the University of Michigan, likes this to spread cold butter on toast. “It just becomes more resistant at low temperatures,” Dasgupta said.

Dasgupta says they’re developing new battery designs that allow ions to flow faster or enable fast charging in the cold. There are also battery chemistry such as solid state that don’t use liquid electrolytes.

He expects improvements to find their way from labs into vehicles in the next two to five years.

“There’s really a global race for increasing the performance of these batteries,” he said.

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