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Gas prices make electric cars more appealing but how much of a problem is winter?

When my wife and I got a Prius a half-dozen years ago we became those annoying people who pay very close attention to their gas mileage, and we quickly realized that New Hampshire winters do a number on MPG.

On average, the January mileage in our gas-electric hybrid is about 10% worse than our July mileage due to warm-up idling and the lower efficiency of the internal-combustion engine.

Since we plan to make our next vehicle a totally electric car and since smart phones die quickly in the cold, we wondered how much more of a drawback winters are when you’re traveling on batteries rather than gasoline.

The answer seems to be: Twice as much of a drawback, plus or minus. Which isn’t great – but also isn’t twice as much of a problem because of the way electric cars differ from gas-fired ones.

That estimate comes from several studies and owner surveys in various places including Norway, the world’s EV leader by a long shot. They indicate that the average EV loses about 20% of maximum range when the temperature falls below freezing, all things being equal. The loss in range, however, can be as much as 40% (egad!) if you do things like keep the heater on full blast, but it can be lessened if you do things like pre-warm the battery and depend on heated seats .

A loss of 20% in range is not trivial. It means that a summer day trip to hike in the North Country from my home is plausible in many EVs without filling up along the way, but a winter ski trip might not be. Since New Hampshire is a laggard in public EV charging stations – run low on electrons north of Concord and you’re in trouble – that’s a problem.

However, I don’t go on ski trips very often (alas!) so what about the rest of the time? Does that range limit make EVs pretty much useless in cold weather?

This is where EVs and fossil-fuel cars diverge.

I got the lowdown from Jessica Wilcox, a transportation specialist at the state Department of Environmental Services, and from friends who own a Chevy Bolt, which they love despite its battery-fire reputation.

They said I’m thinking about it all wrong. I’m stuck in an outdated must-visit-gas-station-to-fill-up mentality.

“The beauty of an electric vehicle is you can leave your house in the morning with a full tank, every morning,” said Wilcox.

Just plug in when you get home to a Level 1 (wall plug) or Level 2 (dryer socket) charger, or a Level 3 high-speed charger if you’ve upped your home wiring, and you’ll be fine. Indeed, my Bolt-owning friends have never used any public charger in four years of ownership.

Imagine never having to stop at a gas station again! No more pumping gas in the cold and rain – woo hoo!

In other words, public charging stations don’t need to be as common as gas stations for EVs to succeed because there will be a slew of private charging stations in people’s garages.

However, this won’t help most apartment dwellers, who often don’t have a place to plug in every night. They will need more public charging stations, which leads to a related issue: Where should EV chargers be?

Tesla, which is light years ahead of anybody else, started out putting chargers on Interstates, often at rest stops – the Hooksett Plaza is a classic example – and has sprinkled some at places like supermarkets and B&Bs. As New Hampshire decides how to use money from the VW Dieselgate fund or infrastructure bill to install chargers, they’ll probably follow the highway route for fast chargers, then switch to that New Hampshire staple of local control.

“We think towns and cities are going to know best where to cite Level 2 chargers to help residents and visitors,” said Wilcox, pointing to places like municipal parking garages, park-and-ride facilities, and main street business corridors.

She also thinks businesses will increasingly install them to attract employees.

Which leads to an analogy I heard from Chris Skoglund, director of energy transition at Clean Energy New Hampshire. The historical parallel for EV chargers isn’t gasoline pumps, he said, it’s horse troughs.

These troughs used to be all over the place in pre-automotive days, providing water or even feed to local transportation systems. Whenever you parked your buggy or wagon, your horse could take a slurp or a chew until business was done, then move on. They didn’t have to fill up at every stop because you knew there would be other opportunities to do so.

“Expect that chargers will be everywhere,” he wrote on Twitter. You can add a few miles while shopping at the pharmacy, a few more miles at the taqueria (his example!), and so on. “The ‘tank’ doesn’t need to be full. It just needs to get you home.”

And, of course, there’s the question of cost. The price of electricity has gone way up but even so the cost of charging an EV is the equivalent of paying $1 to $2 a gallon of gas, depending on what car you have and how you drive. That looks pretty darn good as global turmoil sends gasoline prices soaring.

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