Even after being plugged in all night, our Volt shows a range of only 32 miles after a 31-degree night. (Staff photo)

Electric cars are selling better in California than anywhere else in the country. There are lots of reasons for their relative popularity there, including tax breaks, parking breaks, and HOV lane access, but the weather may turn out to be the most significant factor.

As just about everybody knows, most of California -- particularly its major metro areas -- enjoys balmy weather year-round. That's a good thing because batteries work a lot better when they're warm, which could make electric cars less useful in colder climes.

ConsumerAffairs has operated a Chevrolet Volt in the Washington, D.C., area for the last two years and has found that the car gets up to 45 miles on a full charge in the summer but less than 35 when the temperature falls below 40 or so. 

The American Automobile Association reports even worse results -- it tested an electric car that ran for 105 miles at 75F but went only 43 miles at 20F—a 60 percent reduction in range. 

The electric cars handle surprisingly well in snowy conditions, however, as blogger Clarkson Cole reported after a snowy drive in New Hampshire. We have had similar experiences with the ConsumerAffairs Volt, which has performed surprisingly well on Northern Virginia's hilly, winding roads on snowy days, apparently because of the added weight of the battery.  

Impaired battery performance

But handling aside, impaired battery performance is likely to spell trouble for the nine states that have chosen to adopt California's emission-reduction standards. California is aiming for 15% of car sales to be electric or other zero-emission cars by 2025 and now Connecticut, Maine, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Jersey, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, and Vermont are doing the same.

Since none of these states, with the possible exception of Oregon, have a climate even remotely similar to California's, it's a little hard to see how this will play out.

Car dealers and manufacturers in those nine states are beginning to feel the heat.

“People said don’t worry about it,” said Tom Brown, president of the Maine Automobile Dealers Association in a Bloomberg Business report. But Brown says that besides the colder climate, Maine is a rural state where people routinely commute longer distances than they do in California.  

“California is not Maine. They’ve got more people in five city blocks than we do in the whole state,” he said.

Bloomberg notes that sales in the nine states not only aren't beginning to approach California's, they're also lagging behind states in the South, where warmer temperatures make for happier batteries.

There are three kinds of cars on the road today that meet the zero emissions standard:

  • pure electric cars like the Nissan Leaf and Tesla;
  • plug-in hybrids like the Chevrolet Volt; and 
  • hydrogen fuel-cell cars, which so far make up an infinitesmal share of the market.

Battery technology is steadily improving, but whether it can improve fast enough to enable automakers to meet the tougher emission standards in New England is doubtful. Some engineers say hydrogen fuel-cell would be a better solution in the Northeast, but roll-out of that technology is still in its infancy. 

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