It’s time to throw cold water on cold weather conspiracies when it comes to EVs, says FLO’s chief legal and public affairs officer, Travis Allan
If you are a Canadian EV driver, there is a good chance you had an “Am I living in a parallel universe?” moment in recent weeks with reputable media outlets publishing sensational stories about winter EV driving, range and charging crises across the U.S. and Canada.
By and large, the data and driver behaviour show that Canadians, like Norwegians, are driving EVs in increasing numbers and in cold conditions and generally doing just fine.
It’s not that cold weather doesn’t impact EV performance or that Canada’s EV charging experience is perfect. Everyone agrees there is more work to do on comprehensive charger coverage and reliability and — for the sake of our sanity — rear-window wipers.
But the media FUD (fear, uncertainty and doubt) cycle is real and its focus on EVs has been intense in recent months.
The rise of EV FUD and cold weather horror stories
Any new technology attracts a range of both positive and negative stories. The sudden surge in highly negative EV stories both in Canada and the U.S. is likely associated, at least in part, with a broader trend of climate change skeptics shifting their arguments from outright denial to attacking solutions. For example, there was a notable uptick in EV-critical stories on both social and traditional media in and around the federal government’s announcement of the finalization of Canada’s ZEV availability standard.
Countering FUD stories doesn’t mean being dogmatic. Some stories genuinely want to explore the hows and wheres of charging stations.
There are legitimate lessons to learn from adverse EV experiences.
But some stories are chasing clicks, and some are spinning false information that is blowing issues way out of proportion, especially by concentrating only on cold weather impacts on EVs without acknowledging comparable impacts on gas-powered vehicles.
Ok, but can EVs really work in the winter?
Whatever the angle, all discussion of this topic should acknowledge one fact: EVs and EV chargers work in cold climate winters.
How do we know this? We can look at where EVs are selling well.
The global leader in EV adoption is Norway. The southern part of the country is at a similar latitude to southern Alaska and southern Yukon, while northern Norway is above the Arctic Circle.
Despite this high perch, Norway passed 90 per cent of new vehicle sales being electric in 2023.
Meanwhile, in Canada, Quebec has very high EV adoption (over 20 per cent) including rural areas. This is because it has incentives and robust charging infrastructure designed with a high focus on charging reliability in cold temperatures.
But the fact that EVs work in winter doesn’t mean there aren’t changes, especially at sub-zero temperatures — just like gas vehicles.
Of the two, EVs generally lose more fuel economy (up to 39 per cent in mixed city and highway driving). But a lot of this is due to cabin heating and won’t impact the vast majority of trips, which are still well within the EV’s reduced range. Gas vehicles, meanwhile, typically lose 10-20 per cent of fuel economy in city driving and 15-33 per cent on short trips when the temperature drops below -6C, according to U.S. Environmental Protection Agency estimates.
Gas pumps and EV charging infrastructure tell a similar story. Extreme cold temperatures impact both.
For example, in the recent record cold snap experienced in Western Canada, some gas pumps in Calgary froze. Charging station performance can suffer, too, if temperatures go below what they are certified for (and not all stations are certified for very cold weather).
Large-scale metrics paint a clearer picture
Another reason to discount the one-off horror stories: the overall data tell a much less concerning story.
In a recent study, Recurrent Auto looked at 4,296 Tesla Model 3s and found they took about nine minutes longer to charge at -18C (0F) than warmer temperatures. The report noted, however, that without preconditioning the battery, that time could increase significantly.
FLO looked at 2,230 of its public Level 2 and DCFC charging stations operational for 365 days in 2023. We found, similarly, an increase of around 16 per cent overall time spent charging on average and 17 per cent more energy transferred on days that dropped to -5°C compared to milder days above 10°C.
This data supports that EVs, like gas vehicles, need more fuel (electricity) in the winter because of efficiency loss.
The most important takeaway, however, is that there is no winter charging crisis, even if some chargers have issues. Good charging hardware, properly maintained, is not likely to be worse than a gas pump.
And, as Pollution Probe notes in its 2023 EV charging survey, most EV drivers charge at home and don’t use public stations often (although, to be clear, all public stations should work reliably when needed).
Cold weather mitigation
That brings us to the most interesting question: what are experienced winter EV drivers in Canada doing? In general, they are following cold-weather EV charging best practices like:
- Pre-heating their vehicle cabins while still charging;
- Planning to have more range in reserve (just like gas drivers are supposed to plan to keep half a tank for winter conditions);
- Pre-conditioning their batteries before getting to a fast-charging station; and
- Planning their trip ahead using their favourite EV charging network app, including confirming their planned charging station is online and ready to charge before heading out.
What Canadian EV drivers, by-and-large, are not doing is freaking out.
Many are even posting their cold weather charging pictures with the hashtag #chargethewinter.
So, if you’re a cold weather EV driver, I hope you will, too, because transportation electrification is not the place where we can let the FUD win.