The Daily: 3 February 2023

Well, that marmot saw his shadow. And now that we’ve passed the beginning of the beginning of spring, it is finally winter. The skies are increasingly blue. The landscape is white. The walk to my back door is a solid sheet of ice. (I left the last few inches of snow on top so that it won’t be quite as treacherous, but I still have to take mincing steps to avoid injury.) Today, we’re not supposed to see temperatures above 0°F. Tomorrow, it will be colder. And there will be wind. I have a ticket to the Winter Renaissance Faire up near Burlington; but if it’s going to be that cold, I don’t know that I want to leave the house. (Plus, I’m just not sure about the whole concept of an indoor Ren-faire… where do you hold the joust?)

Still, there are signs that changes are afoot. The crows are becoming noisy at dawn again, and a few nights ago I heard owls for the first time in months. Like wolves, owls breed at this time of year so their young will be fledging a few weeks after the equinox — just in time for the all-you-can-eat spring buffet. Crows are not mating right now. They wait for warm weather since they eat more plants and bugs than small animals and birds. In the winter, crows are convening. They gather in multitudes to roost together, share the news, debate the best nesting spots. I’m sure bragging happens. After many weeks of silent mornings, they are starting to wake earlier — as the sun rises earlier each day — and wake louder. It’s like a city of toddlers all shouting for mom to come see this weird thing RIGHT NOW.

Most of the denizens of the plant world are feeling like I am: roughly, “please, go away, I’m cold…” But the cedars and some of the pines are already taking on that rusty-yellow hue on their needle tips, indicating that they are starting to send out pollen (much to the dismay of allergy sufferers). And the birches and many maples have noticeable buds swelling in their canopies. There is also a deepening red in their outer branches. They are definitely shaking off winter. Or they were, before this arctic blast hit. They may decide to hit the snooze button after this week…

In other wintry news, I’ve made an unwelcome discovery. My car is a plug-in hybrid. It runs electric most of the time but has a gas engine for long runs — and, in Vermont, all these hills, where electric engines go to die. Last January, though I did drive to work more often than not (because of terrifying drivers and Subaru-swallowing potholes), I worked close to home with no intervening mountains. And then I went on furlough for the remainder of the winter. So the car didn’t get much use and spent most days plugged in. I did not experience winter driving in Vermont until recently.

This year I am driving much more, about ten miles a day, approximately half of which is a greater than 5% grade — both ways… I have to go up and down and up and down both to and from work. So the battery is getting a workout every day. In the warmer months, I usually start the day with a charge worth 10 miles of driving (probably a much more level ten miles than I drive, but still…) But in the last few weeks, I’ve noticed that the morning charge has dropped.

It took me a while to really see this. I mean physically. This is a blue number on a darker blue background. It’s not a big font. I have to lean over the steering column to actually see it. So for a while I had noticed that the general shape was not 10, but I hadn’t made the effort to see what it actually was. Then it started looking like a seven, and I got concerned enough to pay closer attention. Yesterday morning it was a five. I panicked, thinking that this was maybe the beginning of the end of my battery’s life — which, given how expensive a replacement that is, effectively means the end of car ownership for me. So then I did some research…

Turns out this is not the end of my car. Turns out this is completely normal and fairly well documented, though those documents are not talked about as openly as one might want. Turns out that EV charging is just not as effective in the cold. It takes much longer and it may not achieve full charge at all. And “cold” is not very cold. There is about a 36% drop in charge at 32°F relative to what would happen in the same charging time at 77°F. (Note that 32°F is a heat wave compared to what is happening in most of the country this week.) And this charging problem gets worse with deeper cold. One Norwegian study found that driving range is lowered by 20% when overnight temperatures are very low.

Maybe I’m being naive again, but shouldn’t this be a concern? Something we maybe want to talk about a bit? Because winter happens. It will continue to happen. And 32°F is not particularly cold. If batteries don’t charge as well in those relatively warm winter temperatures, then this is a problem.

I can’t go to and from work on one overnight charge now. And I don’t live very far from my employment, though it is more mountainous than most drives. Maybe if I were on level ground I could still get by with this low range (or just not drive…). But what of people who have dozens of miles between home and job and few (or no) public transport options? And what happens to the people who fork out a lot of money for full electric cars and then find they can’t actually get anywhere in them in winter? I have a gas-powered engine to take up the slack. A full EV like a Leaf would not be able to get me to work and back again… and there are no charging stations where I work. This is not uncommon…

Unfortunately, I doubt that the solution is more charging stations. I leave my car plugged in from the time I get home in the late afternoon until the time I leave the next morning. About 14-16 hours. And this long chunk of time only got me five miles of charge yesterday morning. Truthfully, I’m not exactly sure how charging stations are supposed to work in general. It’s not like filling up the gas tank and driving off. It takes an hour to get a charge that will take you 3-4 miles. (Though there are much faster “level 2” charging stations… no idea where…) An hour is a very long time to power up the car, but at least it can be done if the charging station is located within walking distance of places you could spend a hour — like the grocery store or the library. But 14 hours? Nope. Nowhere. No-how. If there were charging stations near where I work and I could plug my car in for my full 8-hour shift, on an average winter day I would probably get a charge that may take me almost home. This doesn’t seem like a practical solution.

Anyway, I thought I would pass my newfound wisdom on… Maybe some of you are having similar experiences? Maybe some of you have some coping tips? I can say I am not best pleased to learn this… But I’m also not a bit surprised.

Still, thank heavens it isn’t quite the end of my battery… no idea what will happen then. There is no reliable public transport. (There may not be any. I haven’t figured out Green Mountain Transit yet. Sometimes there are busses… going… ?) There are no paved roads except the freeway. So any permutation of bike travel is sort of nixed. Unless I can find an e-bike with those mondo big tires. With maybe a snow plow attachment.

Sigh… spring can’t come soon enough…

©Elizabeth Anker 2023

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