University of Calgary students turn ATVs into solar power to help indigenous communities

Some engineering students have figured out how to convert ATVs to solar power and hope it will benefit remote and indigenous communities in northern Canada.

Henry Penn of the North American Arctic Institute’s Kluane Lake Research Station, 140 miles northwest of Whitehorse, wanted to find a way to convert a gasoline-powered Kubota midsize utility vehicle used at the station into 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.

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

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

ATVs and utility vehicles are a necessity of life in the North to transport people and goods across some of the world’s most isolated landscapes.

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

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

“We are designing it for the average person. The good thing about charging is that it has an automatic shutdown, so it doesn’t overcharge. You can leave it plugged in.”

Bercier said the team has a work plan and has prepared a manual for indigenous and remote communities so they can do the conversions themselves. Fuel prices are more than expensive in the North, so it will help reduce costs, she added.

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

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

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The cost of the conversion is around $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 degrees Celsius, so this is something we had to consider in our design and it impacted almost every major design decision the team made.”

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

“They were enthusiastic from the beginning. They are a different kind of student,” she said.

“They have been mindful of community and context throughout the process, and have really championed an approach that recognizes the needs of remote and indigenous communities up north.”

The ATV has been sent back to the Yukon Research Station. It will be on display at a conference on renewable energy in remote communities in Whitehorse in a couple of weeks.

© 2022 The Canadian Press

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