University of Calgary students convert ATV to solar to help Indigenous communities

The team has a blueprint of its work and has prepared a manual for Indigenous and remote communities so they can do the conversions themselves

By Bill Graveland, The Canadian Press

Some engineering students have figured out how to convert all-terrain vehicles to solar power and hope it will benefit Indigenous and remote communities in Canada’s North.

Henry Penn from the Arctic Institute of North America’s Kluane Lake Research Station, 220 kilometres northwest of Whitehorse, wanted to find a way to convert a gas-powered Kubota mid-sized utility vehicle used at the station to an electric motor.

Students from the University of Calgary’s Schulich School of Engineering — Jasmine McDermott, Austin Bercier, Wylie Pietsch, Marlin Sako, Alejandro Sulbaran and Natasha Eden — jumped at Penn’s request. 

McDermott, who is of Cree descent, and Bercier, who is Métis, had been hoping to find a project that would allow them to give something back to their communities.

“We wanted to do a project that was relevant to us,” said McDermott.

All-terrain and utility-task vehicles are a necessity of life in the North to transport people and goods around some of the most isolated landscapes in the world. 

In tests so far, solar batteries have been able to run the ATV for at least 90 minutes and recharging simply involves plugging it into a regular power outlet, McDermott said. 

“Basically, it’s just like any other device that you have in your life when you plug it into whatever your electrical source is,” she said.

“We’re designing it for the average person. The nice thing about the charging is it has an automatic shut-off, so it doesn’t overcharge. You can just leave it plugged in.”

Bercier said the team has a blueprint of its work and has prepared a manual for Indigenous and remote communities so they can do the conversions themselves. Fuel prices are beyond expensive in the North so it will help cut costs, he added.

“A lot of the Indigenous communities up there use these types of vehicles as basically their workhorses around their homesteads … and we want to … give them the option to switch to a greener technology,” Bercier said.

“We wanted to develop a conversion kit using a local supply chain where you could source parts in Canada and get up to their remote locations to basically convert their own vehicles to electric.”

The cost of the conversion is about $7,000 and takes about a week.

Bercier said a key challenge was the weather.

“The average winter temperature in the Yukon is well below -30 Celsius, so this is something we had to consider in our design and (it) impacted nearly every major design decision the team has made.”

The project’s adviser was Kerry Black, assistant professor and Canada Research Chair in the department of civil engineering at the Schulich School of Engineering.

“They were gung-ho from the very beginning. They’re a different kind of student,” she said.

“They have had the community and context in mind throughout the process, and have really championed an approach that recognizes the needs of remote and Indigenous communities in the North.”

The ATV has been shipped back to the Yukon research station. It is to be on display at a conference on renewables in remote communities in Whitehorse in a couple of weeks.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 17, 2022.

Feature image via The Canadian Press

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