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Gettin’ a charge out of the electric car

As the story goes, when the speedy army engineers first built the Alaska Highway, no one had time to consider putting up gas stations.

As the story goes, when the speedy army engineers first built the Alaska Highway, no one had time to consider putting up gas stations.

“When the first highway started, when they popped it through, the army pushed it through in eight months,” said Stephen Mooney with Yukon College’s Cold Climate Innovation.

“There were no gas stations. We had to come up with gas stations. So it’s the same analogy, now we’ve got to come up with charging stations for EVs.”

EVs, for the uninitiated, are electric vehicles. These environmentally-friendly cars forgo gas in favour of electricity and have become increasingly popular in both North America and Europe.

In the Yukon the market has been slower to catch on. There are seven electric vehicles registered in the territory. Some were bought at dealerships and others have been retrofitted by mechanically-inclined Yukoners.

A committee of organizations including the Yukon Transportation Museum, Yukon Energy and Cold Climate Innovation wants to bump that number to eight.

They’re working on a plan to study an electric car in Whitehorse, putting it through its paces running daily errands in and around the city.

On paper electric vehicles might be a hard sell for some Yukoners.

When Yukon Energy studied the issue it found that the territory’s cold temperatures, Yukoners’ propensity to drive long distances and love of trucks are all likely to get in the way of people wanting to give up their gas-guzzlers.

About 60 per cent of new vehicle sales in the territory are light trucks. Nobody’s making an electric version of those yet, the report from February said.

Add to that the fact that cold weather can zap up to half of a vehicle’s battery life and the report concludes there won’t be a high percentage of Yukoners purchasing electric vehicles over the next 20 years with the technology the way it is now.

But all is not lost. Commuters travelling around Whitehorse could still make use of an electric vehicle, the report says.

It’s the viability of that kind of travel that this new study will be looking at, said Yukon transportation museum executive director Janna Powell.

“Many people just drive figure eights around town,” she said.

For this study the idea is to build a charging station on the Yukon Transportation Museum’s south-facing property that uses solar panels to create power and charge the car.

Staff at the museum would use the car for daily business or activities like parades or community events.

Yukon Energy’s president and CEO, Andrew Hall, said his company’s report was a paper exercise gathering research from outside sources.

He said there’s value to actually bringing an electric car north to test it out.

“I think there is some justification to continue to look at this and to demonstrate it here in the Yukon,” he said.

“Particularly to give the public and policy-makers and government exposure to what these things look like, actually, physically, on the road and how they work.”

The idea for the charger is what piqued his office’s curiosity, Mooney said.

Plugging a car into the electricity grid isn’t exactly the kind of “innovation” they would normally be interested in, he said. An electric car uses essentially the same plug as your average laundry machine.

The options of using solar panels along with the grid to get that energy makes things much more intriguing, he said.

“What we want to get involved with is how can we use innovation and potential.”

Right now the project is still in its infancy. The Yukon government just gave $10,000 to help with the planning process.

The study itself would likely cost between $200,000 and $400,000 depending on what car and charging station they’re are able to find, Powell said. She’s hoping to have a car on the road by the end of the year.

Both Hall and Mooney said their offices would likely be willing to help out, but those details haven’t been worked out yet.

It’s not difficult to find Yukon’s electric car owners. With so few on the road, the drivers all tend to know each other by name.

Quantum Machine Works in Whitehorse owns a Ford Focus Electric it bought it 2014.

Partner Lee Johnson said he’s aware of the public perception of electric cars. When he first started shopping around he was actively discouraged by salespeople.

“(They were) basically saying, well, you should buy a hybrid if you really want something efficient. Don’t buy this, it won’t be good for you up there,” he said.

But Johnson decided to do it anyways.

“I just wanted to try it really, and prove that it could be done.”

He said the company was prepared to tweak the car if need be to get it to work well in the North.

But that wasn’t necessary.

They comfortably drive it around town and once went as far away as the Ibex Valley.

He estimates the coldest he’s driven in was -29.

In the summer the car can do between 100 and 120 km in one charge, he said. The lowest he’s seen in the winter is about 68 km

With the push of a button the car can start warming its battery and the interior before it gets unplugged. That’s important because it means the car is warmed using power from the charger, not the battery, he said.

“That’s the major drain on electric cars in the winter, is actually keeping the inside of the car warm.”

The car cost about $27,000 plus another $1,500 for the charger, which a local electrician was able to install.

Company staff plug the car in every night. Johnson estimates it would take about three hours for the car to completely charge from zero, though he’s never let it get that low.

He estimates they’ve put 20,000 km on the car driving it around Whitehorse since they bought it in May 2014.

“Even being outside (in the cold), as long as it was plugged in much like a gas vehicle, it didn’t have any major issues other than of course the range is reduced.”

Other attempts at using electric vehicles in the Yukon have been less successful.

In late 2012 a class of Yukon College students spent three days converting a Ford Ranger from gas-powered to electric.

Unlike Johnson, who bought his car, almost every piece of this retrofit was done by hand.

The Ranger never really worked right, Mooney said.

Students decided to build the battery management system themselves instead of buying one off the shelf, He said. That’s the critical piece that regulates how the cells are charged and tells the driver how much battery power is left.

It would have cost them $200 to buy, Mooney said. But instead batteries froze because staff couldn’t tell if they were being charged or not.

“It was a $200 part that took hours and hours and wasn’t built properly and we should have never went down that path,” he said.

“But it was a good learning experience for the people to understand the details of what a battery management system does.”

A new battery management system has been ordered, this one off the shelf, and is expected to arrive in Whitehorse soon.

Mooney is hoping the Ranger might be ready for an event next Tuesday showcasing alternative forms of transportation.

The Shift Whitehorse Transportation Showcase is happening at the Old Fire Hall. From 4 to 7:30 p.m. Yukoners can come by and check out Quantum Machine Works’ electric car and a range of other green methods of transportation.

Contact Ashley Joannou at