Compared to Europe, the uptake of zero-emission recreational vehicles in Canada is modest — but now a handful of tourism companies and manufacturers are setting a climate-friendly standard with electric Tundra Buggies, watercraft and snowmobiles
In the northern community of Churchill, Man., thousands of tourists come every year to catch a glimpse of the polar bears that convene along the shallow waters of Hudson Bay.
For the bear watchers, the journey to see the Arctic wildlife consists of an unusual journey: eight hours riding in a large, spacecraft-like vehicle called the Tundra Buggy. The diesel-powered, sub-Arctic, off-road capable vehicles have five-foot diameter wheels, a heated interior and can hold up to 40 people.
But working on the frontlines of climate change, the company operating the Tundra Buggies, Frontiers North Adventures, is worried. The population of the polar bears in the Southern Hudson Bay region has declined 17 per cent, from 943 in 2011-2012 to roughly 780 in 2016, likely due to loss of sea ice and the warming Arctic affecting the survival rate of the wildlife.
“Who we are as a company and our purpose is to share in the stewardship of the places where we operate. We’re in a very delicate ecosystem in subarctic Canada. We wanted to see how we can make a meaningful difference in reducing our greenhouse gas emissions,” says Jessica Burtnick, manager, marketing and communications at Frontiers North Adventures.
As a result, the company decided to convert its tourism fleet of 12 diesel-engine Tundra Buggies to zero-emission electric vehicles. And in November, the first battery-powered Tundra Buggy rolled onto the frozen ground. In lieu of the rumble of a diesel engine, there was silence — a vastly improved touring experience for both bears and humans alike.
“With the electrified vehicle, we’re going to be able to make the vehicle fade into the background. We don’t want it to be the main attraction because, really, we want people to be paying attention to the ecosystem they’re in, the wildlife that’s in front of them and the stories that we share on the Tundra Buggy, which is essentially a platform for talking about conservation and the problems that the North faces,” says Burtnick.
Learning to retrofit
Frontiers North Adventures plans to electrify the remainder of its fleet in the next 10 years. The company expects to reduce its carbon dioxide emissions by 3,600 tonnes over the next 25 years.
The electric Tundra Buggy was initially supposed to launch in 2020, but the pandemic slowed down the supply chain, says Burtnick.
Funding for the project came through Manitoba’s new Conservation and Climate Fund and the province’s Vehicle Technology Centre, in-kind support and technical services were provided by Red River College Polytechnic’s Vehicle Technology & Energy Centre, and the electric batteries used in the vehicle were donated by Winnipeg-based bus manufacturer New Flyer.
“The biggest challenge we had with the first vehicle is that it has never been done before. We were working with donated batteries, so we had to build our own systems and we had to do it all from scratch…so part of why it took so long is because we needed to figure it out,” explains Burtnick.
“What we’re kind of hoping is the second vehicle is going to be a little bit easier…[and] by the time we hit that that 12th Tundra Buggy we will have perfected it — although I’m going to say we probably won’t have because we’re always looking for how we can make things better and technology changes too.”
Frontiers North Adventure is not the only environmentally conscious Canadian tourism company with zero-emission recreation in mind.
Vision Marine Technologies is a Quebec-based company that manufactures electric outboard motors and a variety of electric recreational powerboats that the company sells to rental operators and customers alike.
One standout among the company’s customers is La Route Champlain, an organization that provides recreational tourist activities such as electric boating, electric bicycling and kayaking in Montreal North.
“We have been using [Vision Marine Technologies] electric boats since 2016,” says Christian Desautels, general director of La Route Champlain who is a staunch advocate of his company’s zero-emission tourism watercraft. “The quality of the product, the operating cost, the very low energy cost, the performance and the beauty of Vision Marine Technologies products are among the reasons why we use them.”
Desautels added that he rarely hears any negative comments about the two electric boats from users. One of the main things customers like, he says, is the absence of the booming sound of a gas engine.
“The biggest difference that our clients feel immediately is when they get on an electric boat, you hear nothing. It changes the experience completely, for the better, because you’re in nature, and there’s nothing more pleasant than hearing the water swish around and hit the hull of the boat,” says Eric Boyer, executive vice-president at Vision Marine Technologies.
“And then, obviously, there are huge benefits environmentally, that is just a given [because] it certainly can’t be healthy to put gas in water.
Potential for growth
Compared to Europe, converting zero-emission tourism and recreation vehicle fleets is well behind in North America, says Boyer. But he doesn’t think the wave will be a hard sell.
“Boats are a recreational product — it’s not an essential means of transportation,” says Boyer. “[But since] it is a recreational product, there is even more reason why people should evaluate how they consume, how they spend their money and deal with the recurring costs.”
Instead of spending hundreds of dollars on gas for the weekend, clients are starting to realize they can plug in for a few dollars per charge.
“So this is enabling us to gain a lot of mindshare and a lot of clients awareness,” says Boyer.
More Canadian electric-recreation options
Other Canadian companies such as Taiga Motors are also driving forward the electrification cause for off-road recreational vehicles by offering both individual customers and commercial operators such as ski resorts and retail and government outlets with electric snowmobile and jet skis for zero-emission tourism and recreational use.
Taiga also launched an off-road charging network for its electric jet skis and snowmobiles in 2021, with rapid rollout to continue through 2022.
Last year also saw power sports vehicle maker Bombardier Recreational Products Inc. (BRP) announce it will spend $300 million to offer an electric model for every vehicle option in its lineup, which includes its Ski-Doo and Lynx snowmobiles, Sea-Doo watercraft, Can-Am on-and off-road vehicles, Alumacraft, Manitou, Quintrex boats and Rotax marine propulsion systems and engines products.
“It’s been in the making for years. We always said it was not a matter of ‘if’ electrification would happen, but ‘when’ and the when is starting now,” said Bernard Guy, BRP’s senior vice-president of global product strategy in an interview with Electric Autonomy Canada at the time.
The company took notice of the growing consumer interest in electric vehicles.
“We’ve been in power sports for more than 50 years and we are a very innovative company. We do that by staying in very close touch with our customers.”