Close to Home: Winter storms, summer swelter can stall electric cars

Mother Nature's recent displays of awesome power give one pause about switching to electric vehicles.
The Press Democrat, February 19, 2023, By Robert C. Yeager

Julio Cortez, Associated Press

On California's storm-battered North Coast, where my family has owned a Sea Ranch cabin for many years, full power was restored nearly two (very long) weeks after the recent rains..

For many residents, that meant no lights, heat or internet and no charging of phones, computers, e-books and other devices.

For electric vehicles, the raging winds and rain raised longer-term doubts. Could California's fragile power grid really guarantee such cars could be counted on for safe, reliable transportation? After all, as recently as last summer's heat wave, PG&E was asking EV owners to forgo charging their vehicles because of heavy demand from air conditioning units.

California boasts nearly half the nation's approximately 3 million EVs, according to Veloz, a nonprofit that promotes electric vehicles. But achieving the state's goal of barring new internal combustion engines in a dozen years will require a major expansion of its generating capacity. "If we try to move in this direction and use only battery electric vehicles, we will fail," Jack Brouwer, an engineering professor at UC Irvine, told CBS Los Angeles.

Besides the question of sufficient energy supply, it turns out sustained cold temperatures negatively impact battery efficiency and, thereby, vehicle range. During the freezing weather that recently enveloped much of the mid- and eastern U.S., AAA warned of drops in EV ranges of nearly 50%.

Full disclosure: my family's Ford plug-in hybrid experienced similar declines during Northern California's cold snap. Normally, the vehicle - which combines a 4-cylinder gasoline engine with a small electric battery - achieves a 20-mile range after an overnight charge on household current. During the recent cold weather, however, the typical range dropped to 13 miles, or about 40% less. Not a big worry unless you're driving an EV-only car and need to go 100 miles but only have 60 miles in the "tank."

After driving a rented Tesla from Orlando, Florida, to Wichita, Kansas last December, Xaviar Steavenson and his sister Alice told Yahoo Insider that freezing temperatures forced them to stop six times in a single day to recharge. "The battery would drain faster than it would charge," said Steavenson.

To add yet another concern, during Florida's recent Hurricane Ian, at least 11 electric vehicles caught fire when their batteries were corroded by surging floodwaters, according to USA Today. "An EV that has been flooded should not be driven until it's been checked out by a certified technician," the newspaper cautioned.

Teslas, especially, have been bedeviled by infrequent but widely publicized - and superhot - fires. In January, a Tesla's battery compartment spontaneously burst into flames while the car was being driven at freeway speeds near Sacramento. No injuries were reported, but firefighters needed 6,000 gallons of water to extinguish the flames.

Automakers are reportedly taking steps to reduce vulnerability to flames; by switching from lithium-ion to lithium-iron batteries, for example. And PG&E and Southern California Edison are ramping up their capacity in preparation for the state's 2035 deadline for ending sales of new gasoline-powered vehicles.

Still, Mother Nature's recent displays of awesome power give one pause. Would policymakers be wiser to pursue gasoline-electric hybrids as a more prudent path for evolving away from fossil fuel?

History sounds a cautionary note: In 1900, electric-powered automobiles outsold all other cars. Indeed, Henry Ford's wife Clara drove a Detroit Electric Brougham as her personal vehicle until World War I. But by the early 1930s, the Great Depression and their drawbacks had driven the last of the EVs out; there were no electric automakers left.

Robert C. Yeager has written frequently about enthusiast automobiles for the New York Times. His book, "The NextGen Guide to Car Collecting," was published by Motorbooks in October. He lives in Oakland and The Sea Ranch.