Arctic Air: How the Chevrolet Volt Performs in the Harshest of Climates
Canada’s Northwest Territories are probably what the rest of the world thinks of when they think of Canada: a sprawling, sparsely-populated Arctic landscape, where we rediscover the humble limits of our human scale. Though twice the size of France, the Northwest Territories’ population of 45,000 could fit comfortably in the Louvre museum in Paris.
Given the feral wilderness surrounding the Territories’ 33 communities, the popularity of trucks and utility vehicles is probably unsurprising. That the territory also counts three plug-in electric vehicles – a Chevy Volt, Nissan Leaf and Tesla Model S – probably is.
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Enter the Arctic Energy Alliance
The Chevy Volt is leased by the Arctic Energy Alliance (AEA), a non-profit organization mandated to help Northwest Territorians reduce the costs and environmental impacts of their energy use.
This is an important mandate, because the Territories’ remoteness entails high energy prices. Many communities have to have their fuel flown in, not just for residents’ automobiles, but to power their electric generators as well. In these communities, residential electricity rates can reach an eye-watering 60 cents/kWh.
The AEA commissioned a study of the viability of plug-in electric vehicles in the Territories in 2013, which concluded that they held promise for communities with access to hydroelectricity – for whom electricity rates are typically “only” in the 20 to 30 cents/kWh range. In these situations, the electric motors’ efficiency advantage over combustion engines remained high enough that plug-in electric vehicles maintained an advantage, despite high local electricity prices.
The study recommended partnering with GM or Toyota to evaluate how well a Chevy Volt or Toyota Prius Plug-in could manage winter, which is how the Arctic Energy Alliance’s Yellowknife office came to lease a Chevy Volt in late 2014. (Yellowknife is home to a GM dealership and Toyota repair shop, meaning local support would be available if those vehicles needed to be serviced.)
The AEA Electric Auto Experiment
Qualitative driver feedback is of minimal value compared to the insights of quantitative data, so when the AEA leased their Volt, they purchased a FleetCarma telematics device to track the vehicle’s operation.
The logger plugs into a car’s On-Board Diagnostics II (OBD-II) port and logs vehicle data every couple of seconds. (All vehicles sold in the United States since 1996 are required to have an OBD-II port, though it’s only been in recent years that data loggers have begun becoming available to consumers or fleet operators interested in monitoring their vehicles.)
It then transmits the data to the cloud using a cellular network, where users can access a broad range of reports through the FleetCarma portal to track vehicles, analyze driving habits, access charging logs and monitor vehicle health.
Consistent with our prior studies on cold weather data, the Volt’s electric range dropped substantially in the winter months – which in the Territories means temperatures consistently below -20°C (-4°F), plummeting occasionally to -40°C (-40°F). The Volt’s electric range dropped by more than half from a summertime 62 km (39 mi), to as low as 27 km (17 mi).
Fortunately, AEA employees could rely on the Volt’s combustion engine to dispel “range anxiety” and heat the cabin in the winters. For this reason, plug-in hybrids would be expected to outsell their battery-electric counterparts here in the coming years – if automakers offer plug-in hybrid truck or SUV options, that is.
(In Norway, battery-electric vehicles have far outsold plug-in hybrids, which is understandable given that historically, the former have qualified for more policy support. Norway also has a hundred times the Territories population in dozens of towns and villages spread across a country one-third of the Territories’ area, with full cellular network coverage. All of these factors would alleviate Norwegian battery-electric vehicle early adopters’ concerns about having their battery run down on a highway.)
What Worked (and What Didn’t)
There had been concerns the Volt would spend much of its time in gasoline mode, owing to the very cold temperatures. Fortunately, those concerns were dispelled.
As of May 2016, the Volt had been driven about 11,161 km on 614 L of gasoline, for a nearly Prius-esque average fuel efficiency rating of 5.6 L/100 km (50 mpg) when one factors in the effects of colder weather.
(We previously calculated that gasoline cars lose about 20% of their driving range — meaning they become 20% less fuel efficient — when the temperature drops from 23°C to -18°C. Much of this relates to the engine taking longer to warm up to peak operating temperatures, and drivers letting the vehicles idle as the cabin warmed up.)
The Volt typically far exceeds the Prius’ fuel efficiency in more temperate regions, but AEA drivers were only able to stay in electric mode about 30 percent of the time, partly owing to road trips taken to communities further afield. In all, the vehicle has consumed 719 kWh of electricity thus far.
On the coldest of mornings, when temperatures dropped below -40°C, the AEA sometimes discovered that the battery was too cold to be used, despite the Volt still being plugged into its 240V charger. Disconnecting and reconnecting the charger would warm the battery sufficiently in half an hour for the car to be used, suggesting that it might be necessary to refine the software algorithm to ensure the battery is kept warm when plugged in at very low temperatures.
That said, extremely cold temperatures still vex combustion vehicles, so it’s unsurprising that Arctic climates challenge first-generation plug-in electric vehicle batteries. When the AEA publishes the findings from its initial electric experiment, automakers will no doubt incorporate the feedback into future automotive designs.
Is there a future for EVs in harsh climates?
The Arctic Energy Alliance’s 18-month electric vehicle experiment with a first-generation Chevy Volt has confirmed that plug-in hybrids, at least, can be successfully deployed in the Northwest Territories.
There is an economic case for their deployment, except where the cost of electricity far exceeds 30 cents/kWh. Adoption will probably also be constrained by service availability, meaning the auto brands with dealerships in Yellowknife.
Perhaps most importantly, the battery can tolerate all but the coldest of temperatures (which bedevil internal combustion vehicles as well) and the gasoline system allows the car to be driven between the Territories’ communities. All of which mean plug-in electric vehicles can serve as a good “drop-in” replacement for their combustion counterparts, even in this early stage of electric vehicle development.