We’re already familiar with good news about electric cars coming out of Norway. The Nordic country already boasts the highest penetration of EVs among new cars sold, hitting the 54 percent mark at the end of 2020 and setting another record in a series that have been inching higher over the past several years.
A package of generous government tax subsidies and special privileges for EV owners is helping to ease a transition away from internal combustion engines, whose sale Norway plans to phase out entirely by 2025. The government further intends to replace all public sector vehicles with battery operated vehicles by 2022.
But, until recently, the EV spark, has been slow catch in the country’s northerly areas. Now that’s starting to change. According to sales figures reported by the Barents Observer in early January, nearly half of all new car sales in Tromsø and Finnmark, two Norway’s coldest counties, were electric.
The sales capped off an especially strong year for electric cars in Norway overall. While the sale of fully battery-operated electric cars topped the 50 percent mark in some months throughout 2020, it was the first time that fully electric cars outsold the combined volume of models containing internal combustion engines for a whole year. The month of December was especially bright, with electric car sales hitting the highest level for any single month of 2020 at a 66.7 percent share of the car market.
“Our preliminary forecast is for electric cars to surpass 65 percent of the market in 2021,” said Christina By who heads the Norwegian EV Association, an interest group, told Futurecar.com. “If we manage that, the goal of selling only zero-emission cars in 2025 will be within reach.”
But there are still challenges to electric cars being the safest choice for traversing long cold distances in the Norwegian counties that lie north of the Arctic circle, says Benjamin Strandquist. Bellona’s senior advisor on electrification says.
“You could say that it is now possible to traverse the whole country with an EV, however I would argue that you could only do so safely during winter in a car with a real-world range of at least 300 kms in -20 Celsius,” he says. “That limits your options to very long-range EVs which still excludes the average car buyer.”
That’s because the lithium-ion batteries forming the core of electric vehicles – as well as cellphones and laptops – are temperature sensitive. As temperatures drop, the electrolyte fluid inside battery cells gets sluggish, giving drivers less power to discharge while driving and causing other headaches when it comes time to recharge
That can have a profound impact on how many kilometers you can drive. A recent study by the Idaho National Labs in the US found that an EV can lose 25 percent of its rated range at freezing temperatures. As an example, that could drop a current 2021 Nissan Leaf from 149 miles (239 kilometers) of range to 112 (180 kilometers), in essence setting it back five model years. Going the other way, that study also found that fast charging was 35 percent less efficient at freezing temps compared to its efficiency at 25 degrees Celsius. The newer – and more expensive – the EV, the better it’s likely to handle cold weather due to improvements in battery management technology.
But it’s not just the cold temperatures that tax a battery. A car’s heating system – no trivial matter in Norway’s Arctic regions – can drive down a battery’s range as well.
Unlike combustion engine-equipped cars, which have a vast source of waste heat for warming, electric cars have to use electricity to do both. A 2019 AAA study of five models of electric cars found that weather below freezing can shorten an EV’s driving range by 41 percent when the heater is on, a combination of the power needed for the heater itself and the temperature challenges to the battery we saw above.
EV makers are innovating in this area to reduce range drag produced by heating systems. The Nissan Leaf now uses a heat pump system like you might find in a mini-split HVAC unit, and Jaguar recently won an engineering award for the thermal management system aboard its I-Pace model. The Tesla Model 3, which also operates a heat pump, can keep a heater operating for 72 hours on a fully charged battery.
Absent those innovations, there are other practical workarounds for operating electric cars in cold weather. First, don’t let your battery charge drop below 20 percent. If you want to power up in subzero temperatures, the car may need that reserve to warm the battery enough to start the process. And when you are plugged in, take advantage of the power supply to precondition the car, warming both the interior and the battery, before zooming off. Vehicles like Teslas and I-Pace, will let you do that from afar via an app.
“I think most people even in this harsh Arctic climate can make do with an EV as their daily driver,” says Strandquist. “However many of them will likely keep an ICE for longer journeys until the network improves and/or they can afford an EV with longer range.”