As most electric car owners will tell you, electric cars don’t have the same range in winter as they do in summer. 

Not so, says Swedish automaker Volvo. Thanks to a carefully engineered heating system, its test fleet of C30 Electric cars can still give impressive range when the outside temperature plummets to -20 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Earlier this week, we became guests of Volvo at its winter test facility in Kiruna, a small mining town some 90 miles north of the Arctic Circle.  

Our task? To find out how Volvo has built an electric car that can keep warm and keep its range in cold weather. 

But first, we should explain how conventional heating systems work. 

In a gasoline car, waste heat from the inefficient internal combustion engine can be captured and used to heat the car’s interior. In an electric car however, the electric motor is so efficient that it doesn’t produce much waste heat. 

Instead, nearly every electric car on the market today uses either an electric immersion heater or an air heater to provide warmth to the cabin. When not plugged in and charging, energy to run those electric heaters has to come from the car’s battery pack. 

Volvo C30 Electric Arctic Test Drive

Volvo C30 Electric Arctic Test Drive

At an energy drain of anything from a few hundred watts to several kilowatts, the energy taken to keep the car warm dramatically decreases range. 

In the frigid arctic, it isn’t just the driver that needs to stay warm either: at those kinds of temperatures, the battery pack and the motor also need to be kept warm. 

Which is why Volvo has built a triple heating system that makes use of two electric heaters, plus an E85 bio-ethanol heater to keep the C30 electric warm. 

Combined, the system is capable of providing 12 kilowatts of heat to keep the car and its drivetrain warm, and means the C30 electric can drive in temperatures as low as -22 degrees Fahrenheit. 

Moreover, the system is capable of heating up the car from -13 degrees Fahrenheit to a warm, comfortable driving temperature of 70 degrees or higher in under 5 minutes. 

Using either petrol or bio-ethanol, the liquid fuel system works in concert with the electric heaters when the car is first started to quickly reach a comfortable temperature for the occupants. 

Once the cabin temperature has risen, the car’s electric heaters turn off, using only the liquid fuel tank for heating.  According to Volvo technicians, its 3.17 gallon tank can provide enough energy to heat the car for 24 hours at an impressively efficient rate of around 0.13 gallons per hour. 

Volvo C30 Electric Arctic Test Drive

Volvo C30 Electric Arctic Test Drive

Because Volvo’s heater uses E85 -- and therefore some fossil fuel -- Volvo has designed its triple heating system in a way that means drivers can choose not to use the ethanol heater. 

Instead, the C30 can be heated on just its electric heaters, although Volvo warns that range will suffer, even if the C30’s  preconditioning immersion heater system is used. 

Volvo isn’t the first automaker to use a fossil-fuel burning heater in an electric car, but it is the first automaker we’ve seen to design such a complex system. 

We’ll be bringing you more from our Arctic adventure in the coming week, including a report of how the C30 electric drives on snow-packed roads. 

Until then, be sure to check out our exclusive interview with Volvo C30 project manager Annelie Gustavsson above, and let us know what you think of Volvo’s solution in the Comments below

Volvo provided airfare, meals and lodging to enable us to bring you this report


Follow GreenCarReports on Facebook and Twitter.