Brutally cold temperatures across the country are canceling flights, closing schools, and turning libraries into warming centers. Now they’re introducing another problem: long lines at electrical vehicle charging stations.

On Jan. 15 and 16, a harsh Arctic blast gripped the Chicago area, sending wind chills plummeting to near -30 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the National Weather Service. This bone-chilling cold, is causing chargers to take more time than usual. One Tesla driver who had been waiting in line at a Chicago area station for five hours told CBS News that “a charge that should take 45 minutes is taking two hours.”

Some cars have been running out of battery while waiting in line to charge up. “If you’re waiting in that line and you only have 50 miles, you’re not going to make it,” one Tesla Model 3 driver told the New York Times. Some stations were not functioning at all in the cold, putting more pressure on the available ones.

The difficulties encountered by Tesla owners are not exclusive to the automaker. Lithium-ion batteries, employed in various devices ranging from smartphones to the Model S sedan, are notably prone to cold conditions, especially when temperatures drop below freezing.

The key message from Tesla’s Cold Weather Best Practices guide emphasizes the importance of readying your car for charging in extremely cold conditions. Several measures, like defrosting the vehicle and adjusting the cabin’s climate before driving, can help heat the battery and make the charge last longer.

The Tesla Model S owner’s manual suggests “preconditioning” the car in cold weather—keeping it plugged in and maintaining a charge of at least 20%. Tesla says drivers should look out for a blue snowflake icon on the car’s touchscreen when the battery is too cold.

It’s also difficult to open the door on the Model S with a drained battery. “Always connect to an external, low voltage power supply before opening a door when the vehicle has no power to avoid breaking a window,” the manual says.

How do electric car batteries lose range in cold weather?

The main culprit for the rapidly dying batteries is the impact of the cold on the battery’s internal chemistry. Electric batteries rely on chemical reactions to generate electricity. As the temperature drops, these reactions slow down, making it harder for the battery to store and deliver its full power.

This can lead to your EV’s range decreasing when temperatures dip below freezing. According to Canadian telematics analysis firm Geotab, at 5F (-15C), EVs drop to 54% of their rated range, meaning a car that is rated for 250 miles (402 km) will only get on average 135 miles (217 km).

Cold temperatures also slow down the charging process since the battery can’t accept the same amount of charge as quickly. As the temperature drops, the internal resistance of the battery increases, meaning there’s more opposition to the flow of electricity within the battery. Long-term exposure to cold weather causes accelerated battery degradation and high discharge rate.

The winter months can demand from your EV battery overall. The heater, defroster, lights, and wipers all consume extra power, which can contribute to faster battery drain and decreased range. Driving through snow and ice can increase the car’s rolling resistance, requiring more energy to move it. The extra weight of snow on the car can add further strain.

Another frigid blast from the Arctic looms by week’s end, promising more cold temperatures and heavy snow for the Midwest, so the battle with the elements is far from over for EV owners.


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