Electric snowmobile shows promise for CSA 

Whistler company invests in McGill University project

The electric snowmobile is not something that’s going to take off tomorrow — $5,000 worth of batteries and a maximum range of 16 km are the most obvious limitations — but Canadian Snowmobile Adventures is doing what it can to bring the technology forward sooner rather than later.

In December, CSA previewed and tested a prototype electric snowmobile that was assembled by an engineering team at McGill University, with roughly $24,000 in research funding from CSA as well as a donated snowmobile chassis.

“For us it was a pretty substantial investment, but in the future our goal is to have specific tours that operate with the electric snowmobile,” said CSA spokesman Craig Beattie.

The snowmobile was also tested in frigid temperatures by the U.S. National Science Foundation’s Summit Camp in Greenland, and will be on display in Quebec and in Chamonix, France by the end of the season.

According to Beattie, the snowmobile passed its earliest tests.

“It was pretty good,” he said. “(Researcher Simon Oullette) had it set to a maximum of 32 km/h, which some people didn’t realize so they thought it was slow, but it does do upwards of 50 km/h. Other than that it worked the way we hoped.”

There are no emissions associated with the electric snowmobile, dubbed Electric Silence; and, as the name suggests, it makes almost no sound. Testers couldn’t even tell when it was running unless they used the accelerator.

Electric Silence was also capable of climbing hills, and pulling loads like the track setter at Whistler Olympic Park. It won’t be used for backcountry trips and deep powder for a long time, but for short, predictable trips they have a lot of potential, says Beattie.

“It’s a long way from being a commercially-built product, but for us it’s something worth spending money on,” he said. “We would like to be the first company to have electric snowmobiles in our fleet, it would be a great first for Whistler as a whole for the sustainability aspect.

“Eventually our goal is to be able to use them to get to Crystal Hut and back, an hour up and an hour down, and an hour for charging in between. Right now charging is too slow, and we have to be in close proximity to a power source. That’s probably the main drawback right now, we have to find a way to charge them faster.”

CSA has already replaced its fleet of snowmobiles with more efficient and lower emission four-stroke machines, reducing fuel needs by about 30 per cent. They also looked into the possibility of running snowmobiles on biofuels, and are starting to look into gas/electric hybrid designs that are also being looked at by researchers at McGill.

With data collected from tests in Whistler and elsewhere, McGill will be retrofitting another sled chassis with an electric motor and batteries for next winter. CSA hopes to have at least one electric snowmobile available to showcase the technology during the 2010 Olympic Winter Games.

Beattie doesn’t believe that snowmobile companies will be manufacturing electric models anytime in the near future, but believes there could be a market for conversion kits. CSA won’t own that technology, but will have the right of first refusal when it comes to manufacturing and retailing the kits in the future.

As well as McGill, CSA is working with other snowmobile and power companies to improve the sled. For example, they are in talks with ADBoivin, which manufactures a lighter composite suspension system that would reduce weight and extend battery life, and with CVTech, which makes variable transmissions for snowmobiles.

While an electrical snowmobile may have benefits for tour operators, CSA also sees potential to expand into areas where snowmobiles are not currently allowed, like some national parks in the U.S., and European countries.

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