With temperatures in Chicago dropping below freezing, electric vehicle charging stations have become scenes of desperation: dead batteries, disruptive drivers and lines that stretch into the street.

“When it’s this cold, cars don’t work as well, chargers don’t work as well and people don’t work as well,” said Javed Spencer, an Uber driver who said he had done little else in the past three years. Plus, he charges up his rented Chevy Bolt and worries about being stranded with a dead battery, again.

Spencer, 27, said he left Sunday for a charging station with 30 miles of battery left. Within minutes, the battery was dead. He had to tow the car to the station.

“When I finally plugged it in, I wasn’t getting any charge,” he said. Recharging the battery, which normally takes Mr. Spencer an hour, took him five hours.

With more people than ever owning electric vehicles, this winter’s cold snaps have created headaches for EV owners as freezing temperatures drain batteries and reduce range.

And the problems may persist a little longer. Chicago and other parts of the United States and Canada have been hit by extremely cold temperatures this week. On Tuesday, wind chills dropped to -30 degrees across much of the Chicago area, according to the National Weather Service. Dangerously low temperatures and waves of snow are expected to persist through the end of the week.

Vehicles use more energy to heat their batteries and cabin in cold weather, so it’s normal to see energy consumption increase, Tesla remind users in a post on its website, offering some advice for drivers: Keep the charge level above 20 percent to reduce the impact of freezing temperatures. Tesla also recommends that drivers use its “scheduled departure” feature to record the start of a trip in advance, so the vehicle can determine the best time to begin charging and preconditioning. This allows the car to run at maximum efficiency from the moment it starts.

In a bitterly cold parking lot in Chicago on Tuesday, Tesla drivers huddled in their cars waiting for a charge.

That morning, Nick Sethi, a 35-year-old engineer from Chicago, said he had found his Tesla frozen and locked. He spent an hour in minus-five degrees fighting with the locks.

Finally, he was able to chisel the embedded trunk handle open, climbed out, and drove his long-range Model Y SUV five miles to the nearest supercharging station. She joined a long list of Tesla drivers.

All 12 loading bays were occupied and drivers slowed down the process slightly by staying inside their vehicles with the heat on high.

“It’s been a rollercoaster ride,” Sethi, who moved to Chicago from Dallas last spring, said of owning a Tesla during a series of brutally cold days. “I’ll get through the winter and then decide if I’ll keep it.”

A few loading bays down, Joshalin Rivera was also experiencing a bit of buyer’s remorse. He sat warm inside his 2023 Tesla Model 3 while he charged the battery.

“If you’re waiting in that line and you only have 50 miles, you’re not going to make it,” Ms. Rivera said, pointing to the line of vehicles that stretched toward Elston Avenue. She said she had seen a Tesla run out of battery shortly after a driver tried to cut the line.

Under normal conditions, Ms. Rivera’s car can travel up to 273 miles on a single 30-minute charge. This week, Ms. Rivera said she woke up to find that about a third of the battery in her car had died due to the cold overnight. As temperatures plummeted, she spent hours every morning waiting in line and recharging the battery.

“It’s like I don’t really want a Tesla,” he said.

Unlike cars with an internal combustion engine, an electric vehicle has two batteries: one low voltage and one high voltage. In especially cold climates, the lower voltage 12-volt battery can also lose charge, as happens in traditional vehicles.

When that happens, the electric vehicle can’t be charged with a fast charger until the low-voltage battery has been jump-started, said Albert Gore III, a former Tesla employee who is now executive director of the Zero Emissions Transportation Association, which represents to automakers, including Tesla. and has released A Tip Sheet for Operating Electric Vehicles in Cold Weather.

The challenge for electric vehicles is that both sides of the battery (the anode and cathode) have chemical reactions that slow down during extremely cold temperatures. That affects both charging and discharging the battery, said Jack Brouwer, director of the Clean Energy Institute and professor of mechanical and aerospace engineering at the University of California, Irvine.

“It ends up being very difficult to make battery electric vehicles work in very cold conditions,” Brouwer said. “You can’t charge or discharge a battery as quickly if it’s cold. There is no physical way to get around.”

Tesla did not respond to a request for comment.

As people in the industry study what went wrong in Chicago, some suggest that the charging infrastructure may have simply been overwhelmed by the extremely cold weather.

“We are just a few years away from deploying electric vehicles at scale,” Gore said. “This is not a categorical problem for electric vehicles,” he added, “because it has largely been solved elsewhere.”

Some of the countries with the highest use of electric vehicles are also among the coldest. In Norway, where nearly one in four vehicles is electric, drivers are accustomed to taking measures, such as preheating the car before driving, to increase efficiency even in cold weather, said Lars Godbolt, an adviser to the Norwegian Electric Vehicle Association. . that he represents more than 120,000 electric car owners in Norway.

Charging stations in Norway have longer queues in winter than in summer, as vehicles take longer to charge in colder climates, but that has become less of a problem in recent years since Norway has built more charging ports. load, Godbolt said, citing a recent study. member survey. Additionally, most people in Norway live in houses, not apartments, and almost 90 percent of electric vehicle owners have their own charging stations at home, he said.

Worldwide, 14 percent of all new cars sold in 2022 were electric, up from 9 percent in 2021 and less than 5 percent in 2020, according to the International Energy Agency, which provides data on energy security. In Europe, Norway, Sweden, Iceland, Finland and Denmark had the highest share of electric vehicles in new car registrations in 2022, according to the European Environment Agency.

Cold weather is likely to be less of an issue as companies update electric vehicle models. Even in recent years, companies have developed capabilities that allow newer models to be more efficient in the cold. “These new challenges arise and the industry innovates to solve not completely, but at least in part, many of these problems,” Godbolt said.

All vehicles, including those powered by diesel or gasoline, perform worse in cold weather, said James Boley, spokesman for the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, a trade association representing more than 800 automotive companies in Britain. He said the problem was not so much the ability of electric vehicles to perform well in cold climates, but rather the inability to provide necessary infrastructure, such as charging stations.

With a car that runs on gasoline or diesel, drivers have complete confidence that they will find gas stations, so they focus less on their lower efficiency in cold weather, he said. “If there is no electric vehicle charging infrastructure, it may be a bigger concern.”

Spencer, the Uber driver, said the economics of driving an electric vehicle for a ride-sharing service may not work in Chicago winters. Uber said in a statement that it offers fee discounts to its drivers, but Spencer is still concerned.

“The payment is the same, but the cost to the drivers, with all these additional charges, is much higher,” he said.

Ivan Penn and Derrick Bryson Taylor contributed with reports.

Audio produced by Tally Abecassis.